cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Noel Streatfeild

Illustrations

Dedication

Title Page

Epigraph

  1 About The Family

  2 Curiosity

  3 Clothes

  4 The Birthday

  5 The Party

  6 Disaster

  7 The Zoo

  8 Play Saturday

  9 The School Play

 10 News for Esau

 11 Ginnie’s Concert

 12 A Busy Morning

 13 The Relations

 14 The Earners

 15 Holiday by the Sea

Backstory

Copyright

OTHER BOOKS BY NOEL STREATFEILD

Ballet Shoes

Tennis Shoes

Circus Shoes

Theatre Shoes

Party Shoes

White Boots

Dancing Shoes

A Vicarage Family

Saplings

Ballet Shoes for Anna

Far to Go

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Written for
JOSEPHINE PLUMMER
who produced the Bell Family series
on the air in Children’s Hour

About the Book

‘Well, little people, what’s the news?’

Meet the big, happy Bell family who live in the vicarage at St Marks. Father is a reverend, Mother is as kind as kind can be. Then there’s all the children – practical Paul, dancing Jane, mischievous Ginnie, and finally the baby of the family, Angus, whose ambition is to own a private zoo (he has already begun with his six boxes of caterpillars). And not forgetting Esau, a sure fire competitor for the most beautiful dog in Britain.

Follow their eventful lives from tense auditions to birthday treats; from troubled times to hilarious escapades.

BACKSTORY: Take the quiz to find out which one of the Bell children you most resemble!

About the Author

Noel Streatfeild was born in Amberley, Sussex in 1895. Her first novel, Ballet Shoes, is her best-known book but she went on to write many well-loved books for children, including Circus Shoes, which won the Carnegie Medal in 1938. In 1983 she was honoured for her contribution to children’s publishing when she was awarded an OBE. She died in 1986.

I am afraid only half the story is here, but perhaps, if anybody wants to read the other half, I might write another book about ‘The Bells’

Illustrations

Right in the middle of the main street is St Mark’s Vicarage

Ginnie was chewing the ends of lettuce

‘It is too short’

The family came cascading down the stairs

‘What are you little people doing?’

‘You can’t wear it. You simply can’t’

‘Now, please don’t talk, I’m going to read my programme’

‘If anyone tries to speak to you, don’t open your mouth’

‘I’m doing very badly inside’

‘Isn’t it laughable?’

‘These are for you, Aunt Rose’

‘You gorgeous boy!’

‘You wouldn’t like it. It’s not at all nice’

The concert was over

Everyone tried to tell him

‘Good gracious! My old house-coat!’

‘And what might you have been up to?’

Jane was nearly in tears

‘Every penny helps’

It was Paul’s present that truly thrilled her

1

About The Family

THE THAMES IS a very twisting sort of river. It is as if it had to force its way into London, and had become bent in the process. First there is a big bend to the right, then a little one to the left, then a great bulge to the right, followed immediately by a smaller bulge to the left. In that smaller bulge to the left is the part of south-east London in which the Bells lived.

The people round where the Bells lived are not rich; mostly they live in small houses joined on to their next door neighbours. It is a very noisy part of the world. People shout a lot, and bang a lot, and laugh a lot. In the High Street there is an almost continuous street market of a very shouting sort, for not only are there the usual men calling out ‘Tomarrs ah ri’ for ‘Tomatoes all ripe,’ or ‘Whelks luv-er-ly whelks,’ but there are a lot of shops behind the market selling television and radio sets, and these are tuned in all day and blare music out into the streets. All day long buses flow like a slow red stream through the crowded roads, and as well there are lorries, tradesmen’s vans, private motor cars and many cycles, all trying to get along and all hooting at each other.

People who do not live in south-east London might say to themselves that it was a crowded, dirty, noisy place to live in, but the people who live there do not feel like that at all. They are as true Londoners as the London pigeons, they like roaring to make themselves heard, they like street markets, they like living so close together that they know each other’s business, they like the jostling gay life of the streets; they have lived in that part of London all their lives, and they would not move even if you offered them a flat in Buckingham Palace.

Right in the middle of the main street is St Mark’s Vicarage. It is not joined on to the houses next to it like other houses in the neighbourhood, but stands by itself with, quite close to it, the parish hall, and next to the parish hall St Mark’s church. When the Bells first came to St Mark’s Vicarage, Mrs Bell, Cathy as Alex Bell, the Reverend Alexander Bell, calls her, felt quite ill, the neighbourhood made her so depressed. Her father had been a country doctor, and she had been brought up with a big garden, and outside the garden plenty of fields and woods to wander in. When she married Alex he had been a curate, working not exactly in a country parish but in a not very built-up one, so she had not felt cramped.

St Mark’s Vicarage was an ugly Victorian building, with a lot of space wasted in passages. The front door opened on a long passage, with first the study and then the dining-room on the left, and on the other side an enormous sunless, chilly room, which the previous vicar had used as an extra parish room, to save himself going out on wet evenings, but which Cathy could see she would use as a drawing-room. The kitchen was a tremendous size; it was at the far end of the passage and must, Cathy supposed, have been meant to house a cook and several kitchen maids. With only her working in it she thought it would feel rather like cooking in St Paul’s Cathedral. Upstairs there were three quite nice bedrooms, a bathroom, a linen cupboard without any windows and yards more passage.

There never was a house, Cathy decided, that wasted more space than St Mark’s Vicarage, but it was not the house that depressed her, but what was outside the house. Whichever way she looked there were chimney pots, the gravelly scrap of earth round the house would never make a garden, there did not seem to be a tree within miles; perhaps it was there being no trees that gave her that sinking feeling inside. Alex was a very clergyman sort of clergyman, so he thought the place where he was most needed was the loveliest place to be, so Cathy knew it would be no use saying to him: ‘Oh, Alex, do tell the bishop we won’t come here,’ so she resolutely turned her back on the view outside the windows, and concentrated on the house.

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Right in the middle of the main street is St Mark’s Vicarage

At that time the old vicar, who was going to retire, was still living in the vicarage. He and his old wife were devoted to dark-red wallpaper, large mahogany furniture, Indian brassware and potted ferns. Cathy tried in her mind to strip the red wallpaper off the walls, turn out the furniture, brass and ferns, and put in their place their own shabby but much nicer possessions, and their nicest possessions of all—their three children. But it was not easy to do, and she was looking so depressed when she got into the bus to go home that even Alex noticed it.

‘Cheer up, darling, I’m sure we’re going to be very happy there.’

Cathy’s reply tried to sound hopeful, but only succeeded in sounding doubtful.

‘I suppose we shall. But, my goodness, Alex, what a lot wants doing.’

At that time there were three Bell children: Paul who was six, Jane who was four and Virginia who was two. Another baby was expected, of course Alex and Cathy did not know what sort of a baby it would be but they hoped it would be a boy, and in their minds they called him Angus. Most of the planning of what was done in the vicarage had to be by Cathy, for Alex was not at all a practical man. He had been born in a home with plenty of money, and had not been taught by doing without what money was worth. His father owned woollen mills, and it had been his idea that his two sons, Alfred and Alexander, should join him in the wool business. Alfred had joined him, and had been so successful that he not only managed the London end of the business but was director of several companies as well. Alex had known from the beginning that he was not a bit interested in wool, and was determined to be a parson. There had been a dreadful row when finally he told his father about it, and when at last his father saw that Alex had made up his mind he said:

‘You must be daft, lad, there’s not a penny of money to be made in the Church. If you make a fool of yourself and go into it none of my brass’ll keep you.’

Alex’s father had kept his word. He had sent him to Cambridge, and paid all his expenses until he was accepted into the Church, but from that moment on he never gave him another penny. Alex did not mind a bit, but then he never thought they were poor, which made it very difficult when it came to things like moving house. Not a great deal could be done to the vicarage. The Bells were helped by something called ‘Queen Anne’s Bounty,’ which lends money to make vicarages habitable, but that mostly had to go on things like drains, and a gas stove—dull but frightfully important. The red paper was of course stripped off the walls, but paint is expensive, and so are wallpapers, so what most of the vicarage walls got in exchange was a good coat of distemper.

Before the Bells moved in two very important people came into their lives: the first was Mrs Gage. Cathy had asked one of the churchwardens to recommend somebody to come and give the floors a good scrubbing before the carpets were laid. She came to see the house while the scrubbing was going on. As she opened the door of the vicarage she heard a strange noise, half-tune half-puff. It was Mrs Gage scrubbing the hall while she sang the hymn ‘Pleasant are Thy courts above.’ It was a cold, beastly sort of day, in what ought to have been the beginning of spring and wasn’t. Cathy was tired after a long bus journey and was looking blueish-greenish. Mrs Gage raised her face from her scrubbing brush, took one look at Cathy and said firmly:

‘What you want, dear, is a nice cuppa.’

Over that first cup of tea Cathy learnt quite a lot about Mrs Gage. Mr Gage was in a nice way of business in the vegetable line.

‘Always been in the veg line ’is family ’as,’ Mrs Gage said, ‘seems to ’ave a proper talent for it. If there’s a good line in celery goin’ Mr Gage’s nose will tell ’im of it from ’ere to Covent Garden.’

Cathy learnt that Mr and Mrs Gage had five children, all were married except the youngest, Margaret Rose, who was still at school. She learnt that the Gages had a little house not far from the vicarage, evidently beautifully kept, for when Cathy admired the way the house was scrubbed Mrs Gage said:

‘I’m treatin’ the vicarage like me own place. I’m always tellin’ Mr Gage you can eat off me floors anywhere, ’ceptin’ when ’e brings in ’is great dirty feet, without wipin’ ’is shoes.’

Mrs Gage learnt a lot about Cathy which Cathy did not tell her. She knew, because Cathy told her, all about Paul, Jane and Virginia, but she also knew, although Cathy did not tell her, about the new baby, which was expected in the summer. She thought Alex, ‘The Reverend’ as she called him, a very nice-looking gentleman, but though Cathy did not tell her, she found out there were drawbacks to being the vicar’s wife. It might sound all right, but when it meant running a largish house with very long passages on very little money, it could be more of an anxiety than a pleasure. Another thing she knew, though Cathy said nothing about it, was that Cathy had a great deal to learn about management. Cathy thought she had been brought up in a not very well off home, and so she had compared with Alex, but Cathy’s idea of not very well off and Mrs Gage’s were two different things. Mrs Gage knew what it was for every penny to matter, and she thought it would be something that Cathy would have to learn. She knew that Cathy would need someone to help her to learn to manage, and to help her run the vicarage, at any rate, for the first few months. So suddenly she said:

‘I’ll pop in for an hour or two to start with, dear. I don’t work regular, but I don’t mind now and again to oblige.’

Cathy said cautiously that she was afraid she would not be able to have Mrs Gage often, because they would not be able to afford it. Mrs Gage had a glorious roaring friendly laugh, she laughed now.

‘Don’t worry, dear, we’ll manage some’ow. If you can’t pay me, I’ll ’ave to pick Mr Gage’s pocket, and not for the first time neither.’ Then she added more seriously: ‘Tell you what, I’ve always been meanin’ to do a bit of good works like, so once a month I’ll give The Reverend’s study a good turn out. It’ll be me good deed like.’

Cathy knew that Alex, who was never cross about anything, got the nearest thing he could be to cross when people turned out his study, but even meeting her for the first time she had got very fond of Mrs Gage and certainly wasn’t going to hurt her feelings. So she only said: ‘That’ll be lovely,’ and hoped Mrs Gage would forget about her good deed, or at least be careful to choose suitable days on which to do it.

The second person to come into the Bells’ lives walked, or rather blew, into the house uninvited. He would perhaps have been shown out again, only the day he blew in was the day Alex had borrowed a friend’s car and brought the three children over to see the vicarage. Paul was the only one who was old enough to realise the house they were looking at was to be their new home. The home he had left behind had all their furniture in it, which, though old and shabby, he had always known and loved. This house had no furniture at all and smelt nastily of distemper. There was a garden round the house which they had left. Facing them across the road almond trees were in bloom. Paul’s face as he looked round the vicarage and out of its windows was revolted. He did not so much speak as words burst out of him.

‘Mummy! We can’t stop here, this is an awful place. I don’t never want to live here.’

Cathy thought Paul was so very right, for she did not want to live there either, that she had to think before she answered him. It was while she was thinking the stranger blew in. A small, wriggling red cocker spaniel puppy. There was a strong wind that morning, the front door had not been properly shut, it had flown open, and the puppy had blown in with all his fur going the wrong way. Jane was the first to get hold of him, she knelt down beside him and hugged him to her.

‘Look, Mummy, a fairy dog. He’s come to live with us, for ever and ever.’

Cathy did not want any more family just then. Moving was quite enough without a not-yet-house-trained puppy added to the party, but Fate was against her. The puppy was one of three belonging to a sidesman, he was looking for a good home for it, and thought nothing could be better than the vicarage. Being parson’s children the Bells were, of course, properly brought up on the Bible, and a suitable name for the puppy was at once thought of by Paul.

‘We’ll call him Esau, because Esau was a hairy man.’ Suddenly the vicarage stopped looking awful, and Paul stopped minding moving into it, he gave Esau an enormous hug. ‘Good morning, Mr Esau Bell, we’re very glad to have you in the family.’

When the Bells had lived at St Mark’s Vicarage for seven and a half years Paul won a scholarship to a very good day school. This was an important day in the vicarage, for Paul needed a special education, for he was going to be a doctor. From their first summer in St Mark’s Vicarage, when Angus was only a new baby, the whole family had been invited to stay with Cathy’s brother, Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim had taken over his father’s practice, and he and his wife, Aunt Ann, and their children, Ricky and Liza, lived in the rambling house with the large untidy garden, that Cathy had known when she was a child. Quite near them lived Cathy’s father and mother, whom the children called Mumsdad and Mumsmum. Mumsdad had mostly retired from being a doctor but he still did some work for the cottage hospital. Paul, aged six, driving round the practice with Uncle Jim, or waiting outside the hospital for Mumsdad, thought the most glorious thing that could happen to anybody was to become a country doctor and live amongst trees and fields, and not in stuffy, noisy, dirty south-east London. But, as the years went by, and he grew older, his ideas changed. First, though he would not admit it and still grumbled about them, he got fond of both St Mark’s Vicarage and south-east London. Secondly, he knew he did not want to become a country doctor, that he meant some day to be a specialist, and work in one of the great London hospitals. Being a specialist, or training to be a doctor of any sort, is a very expensive business, and Paul knew, without being told, that it could only be done with scholarships. So it seemed to him his first real step towards being a doctor when he heard he had won his school scholarship.

Jane and Ginnie, as everybody called Virginia, went to a school called St Winifred’s. St Winifred’s had been built out of money left by a rich old lady ‘to provide girls with a Christian education, and to give free education to the daughters of poor clergy.’ The free education for the daughters of poor clergy was too good an offer for Alex and Cathy to turn down, but there were disadvantages about St Winifred’s. The girls had to wear an absolutely hideous uniform: shirt blouses with ties, very bunchy navy gym tunics, absolutely atrocious black stockings, no socks after your eleventh birthday, and black shoes, navy-blue overcoats, and the most unbecoming hats, with the school ribbon round them, that anyone had seen. Miss Newton, the headmistress, did what she could to modernise the school, which had very old-fashioned rules, but it was uphill work for the board of governors liked the old-fashioned rules and tried to make the school stick to them. Jane’s great interest in life was dancing. There was a dancing class at St Winifred’s which, as the daughter of a poor clergyman, she attended free. The dancing mistress, Miss Bronson, had been well trained, and did her best to pass on her training to the girls, but you cannot do much with two classes a week, and large classes at that. She had done what she could for Jane, having at once spotted she had talent. Sometimes she kept her after a class to give her private lessons, and she taught her exercises to do at home every day. As well, though Jane did not know this, she had been to Miss Newton about her. Jane, she said, in her opinion had outstanding talent, and should be properly trained. Miss Newton promised to pass on the message, but said she held out no hope.

‘They’re desperately poor, I’m afraid, and not being a Government school we can’t get special scholarships for our girls, but I’ll tell Mrs Bell the next time I see her.’

Cathy, when she heard what Miss Bronson had said, looked miserable.

‘I know she has talent, bless her, but I’m afraid a dancing school is out of the question. It wouldn’t be only the fees, it would be special clothes, and fares, and goodness knows what all. My children do grow so, and clothes are so expensive, and something always seems needing doing at the vicarage, it absolutely eats money, that house. I do hate saying no, but it really is impossible at present.’

Jane was the sort of girl who always worked hard at anything that she did. It worried her to be behind in her class, it even worried her that she was no good at games, and she tried very hard to make up for not being good at them by sounding extra keen about them, which she was not. St Winifred’s was the sort of school where hardworking girls like Jane got on very well, so she was as happy there as she could be in any school which was not a dancing school.

Ginnie was the exact opposite to Jane. Jane was thin, small for her age and unusually pretty, with dark blue eyes and brown hair curling to her shoulders. Ginnie was almost as wide as she was long, so wide that sometimes when her family were feeling mean they called her Queen Victoria, because she looked the same sort of shape as Queen Victoria looked when she was an old lady. Nobody could call Ginnie pretty, she had greenish coloured eyes, and very straight mouse-coloured hair which stuck away from her head in two stiff plaits. The nicest thing about her appearance was her smile, she had the kind of smile that nobody could see without feeling they had to smile too. Ginnie was the opposite to Jane about work too. She never cared how badly she did.

‘It’s simply idiotic for Miss Virginia Bell to slave and slave to be at the top of the class. All that would happen would be that she’d be so dead from exhaustion by the end of the week she couldn’t work any more so she’d be bottom the next week.’

Ginnie thought dancing the most disgusting waste of time. She had to go to the dancing classes, but she never learnt much, for she spent most of her time in the back row, making her friends laugh by imitating the girls in the front row. Ginnie adored games, sometimes she dreamt of being games’ captain, but it was only a dream, for she was not really outstanding, and in St Winifred’s you had to be outstanding to be a champion at anything, for it was a big school with over seven hundred girls.

Angus was at a choir school; he had a really lovely voice and had recently been promoted to sing solos. Angus despised his voice, he thought nothing of being able to sing. His ambition was to own a private zoo. In the bedroom which he shared with Paul, as the thin edge of the wedge, there were always at least six boxes of caterpillars.

‘Once Mummy’s got used to seeing these caterpillars, Paul, I bet she won’t notice if larger things come. I could start with a mouse or two, work through to rats, and then quite soon something perhaps as large as a monkey.’

Paul was not enthusiastic about Angus’s daydream.

‘You don’t keep to your end of the window ledge as it is, and if you think I want a monkey scratching for fleas all night you’ve got another think coming.’

2

Curiosity

THE SUMMER AFTER Paul got his scholarship was the summer that Angus was eight.

On a streaming wet day three weeks before the birthday Cathy was getting tea and listening for her family’s return from school when the telephone bell rang. She stopped spreading jam on bread and waited to see if Alex would answer it. It was sure to be for him, but sometimes when he was writing a sermon or a difficult letter he was such miles away he did not hear it. This time he did hear so Cathy went back to her jam spreading, but since the telephone was in the hall, half-listening to what Alex said.

‘Hallo. Oh, it’s you, Alfred.’ Then there was a long pause in which his brother Alfred’s voice could be heard growling like a far-off thunderstorm. Then Alex said: ‘How nice of you, old man. Of course we will all come. It will be a red-letter day for us, and the best birthday Angus ever had.’

Before Alex had put down the receiver Cathy was standing beside him with a piece of bread in one hand and a jammy knife in the other.

‘What did Alfred say? What’ll be a red-letter day? What’s happening on Angus’s birthday?’

Alex came back to the kitchen with Cathy.

‘My father and mother are coming to stay with Alfred and Rose in three weeks’ time. As it coincides with Angus’s birthday they thought they would have a birthday party for him, and a family party for all of us.’

‘What sort of a party? Tea?’

‘No, a theatre party. They’re taking us to Covent Garden to see the ballet. Veronica’s never seen one, and they think she should. There’s to be a birthday supper party afterwards.’

‘Ballet! Won’t Jane be excited!’ Then Cathy’s face changed and wore the anxious look mothers’ faces have when their children are invited to something and have not the right clothes to wear. ‘Oh, dear! Must it be an evening party? Why couldn’t it be a matinée?’

Alex thought Cathy was worrying about bedtime.

‘One late night won’t hurt Angus.’

Cathy sighed.

‘You are the nicest man in the world, Alex, dear, but you are too unworldly to live. Can’t you see that party? Everybody in evening dress. Your mother upholstered in good silk. Rose in her latest model. Veronica wearing a new fluffy frock for the occasion. And us looking like very, very poor relations.’

Alex put an arm round Cathy.

‘No matter what they wear they won’t look a patch on you, they never do.’

Cathy made a face at him.

‘In my old black day dress, which years ago was a castoff of Rose’s!’

‘It isn’t evening dress. Rose sent you a special message she was wearing an afternoon dress.’ Alex stopped, for Esau had run barking to the front door. ‘That’ll be Miss Bloggs. I met her delivering parish magazines, and I want to see her so I asked her to tea.’

Most parishes have ladies attached to them who are sort of unpaid curates. Miss Bloggs was that sort of lady at St Mark’s. She had wishy-washy hair, which had been reddish, but was now mostly grey, a scraggy body, and an eager expression, like a dog who hopes everybody is glad to see him, but is not sure. She was, as Ginnie often said, ‘So good she couldn’t be good-er.’ All day she slaved for Alex. Much of her time she spent on her bicycle, which she called her steed, peddling round the parish, leaving messages, begging for subscriptions, asking for clothes for jumble sales, or delivering parish magazines. Alex often said he did not think he could have got through all the work that he did if it were not for Miss Bloggs. Cathy liked Miss Bloggs because she was so useful to Alex, but she was not really her favourite person. Hearing Alex open the front door and let Miss Bloggs in she called from the kitchen:

‘What a day to deliver magazines, you must be soaked. Hang up Miss Bloggs’s mackintosh to dry, Alex, and take her into the dining-room and light the gas fire. Tea won’t be long.’

Miss Bloggs had the sort of voice which sounded as if she had taken elocution lessons.

‘Don’t bother about silly me, Mrs Bell, dear. We never catch cold my steed and I, never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.’ Cathy knew by the way the front door opened and shut which of her family was coming in. Angus slammed it, Jane shut it by leaning against it, Paul, who was usually carrying books, used his knee to hold it open. Ginnie and Alex never shut doors after them. So as Esau excitedly skidded down the passage, and the house shook as the door slammed, she did not need to hear him speak to know it was Angus.

‘Down, Esau. My goodness, you are a wet boy! Have you been out?’

Cathy came to the kitchen door.

‘Don’t let Esau climb all over you, darling, he’s very wet. Take off your wellingtons before you come into the hall, and hang up that mackintosh.’

Angus’s mind was not on wellingtons and mackintoshes.

‘Mummy, have you got a match box?’

Cathy waited until she heard the boots removed.

‘Have I got what? Hang up your mackintosh before you come to the kitchen. I don’t know what Mrs Gage will say if you drip all down her hall.’

Angus had a passion for long words, though he did not always get them quite right.

‘It’s per-pos-terious for Mrs Gage to mind my drips. Anyway, Esau has made so many footmarks it’s like the hall had a mud floor. Can I have a match box?’

With thrilled yaps and barks Esau again skidded towards the front door; this time it was Jane and Ginnie. Cathy, who, because of Miss Bloggs, had opened a pot of paste and was making some thin paste and lettuce sandwiches, laid down her knife and went again to the kitchen door.

‘Take off your wellingtons, darlings, before you come into the hall, and hang up your mackintoshes.’

Jane was kneeling beside Esau.

‘You blessed lamb, you’re sopping. I’ll get a towel and dry you. Poor angel, I can’t think why you don’t get pneumonia!’

Ginnie grunted as she pulled off a wellington.

‘To hear you talk people would think you were the only person in this house who cared for Esau, wouldn’t they, Esau, my most exquisite darling?’

Cathy waited to hear the wellingtons removed, then she went back to her sandwich spreading. Esau, Jane and Ginnie came running down the passage. She looked up smiling, pleased they were home.

‘Had a good day, darlings?’

Jane sat on the table.

‘Something simply marvellous is going to happen. I’m going to dance a solo in the school play.’

Cathy’s eyes shone. Always she felt miserable about Jane’s dancing, and any chance Jane got for an extra lesson, or, as now, a chance to show what she could do, was as if somebody had given her a present.

‘I am glad, darling. What sort of a dance?’

Jane had taken a towel and was drying Esau.

‘A nymph. Stand still, angel boy, how can I dry you if you wriggle like that?’

Cathy looked doubtfully at the towel.

‘Is that his you’re using?’

Jane nodded.

‘I ought really to wear only a tiny bit of something, but being St Winifred’s I should think it would be long and thick for decency.’

Ginnie was chewing the ends of lettuce Cathy cut off the sandwiches.

‘Who’s coming to tea, Mummy?’

‘Miss Bloggs, she’s here already. You must go and wash, darlings.’

The children looked reproachfully at her. Angus said:

‘That Miss Bloggs comes to tea abs’lutely every day. Mummy, will you listen? Can I have a match box?’

Cathy laid another sandwich on the plate.

‘I don’t like the way you children speak of Miss Bloggs. She’s a wonderful help to Daddy.’

Jane raised one of Esau’s ears and whispered into it:

‘Esau, angel boy, according to Daddy Miss Bloggs is the cream of his parish workers.’

Ginnie picked up another bit of lettuce.

‘If Miss Bloggs is cream, I hope I’m skim.’

Cathy meant to speak severely.

‘Ginnie …’ Then she saw Ginnie’s leg, which was sprawled out behind her. Above her sock was a large strip of pink plaster. ‘What have you done to your leg?’

Ginnie glanced at her leg as if the news there was plaster on it surprised her.

‘It’s that old cut, the top came off so Matron put a new plaster on.’

Cathy looked at the plaster with a professional eye.

‘What did Matron say?’

Ginnie sighed.

‘You know what a fuss she is, she said, “Keep that plaster on until I see that leg again.” Do you know, Mummy, I bled and bled so much I thought I’d bleed to death.’

Cathy finished the last sandwich.

‘These sandwiches are visitors only. Now, do go and wash, darlings, poor Miss Bloggs and Daddy have been waiting ages for their tea.’

Angus in desperation pulled at Cathy’s arm.

‘It’s un-possible for me to wash until I’ve got a match box.’

Cathy, arranging the sandwiches on a plate, suddenly realised that Angus had been talking about match boxes ever since he came in.

‘What do you want a match box for, pet? You haven’t got a new caterpillar, have you?’

‘Yes. It’s a woolly bear one, I got it for Paul. I swopped it for that book of songs that Grandmother gave me for Christmas.’

Cathy was used to her children’s swopping habits, but Grandmother’s Christmas present had been a lovely book of old English songs.

‘Oh, darling, you didn’t!’

Angus was pleased with himself.

‘A woolly bear caterpillar will be much nicer to have. All those solos, and I ab-nor singing solos.’

Ginnie finished the last piece of lettuce.

‘You can’t hate singing solos as much as we hate hearing them, my boy. At that concert for the parish mothers I thought I’d be sick in the middle of “Cherry Ripe.”’

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Ginnie was chewing the ends of lettuce

Angus thought that most unjust.

‘I didn’t ask to sing, and I don’t ask to go to a choir school. Mummy, could I have a match box now?’

Jane, who had finished drying Esau, hung up his towel, as she turned she saw what was in Angus’s hand.

‘What a dear little caterpillar.’

Angus was not tall, but now he drew himself up to all the height he had.

‘A woolly bear caterpillar isn’t a dear little anything, it’s a me-ter-lodg-ical experiment.’

‘Who says so?’ asked Ginnie.

‘Paul.’ Cathy took a full match box off the shelf and tipped the matches out. Angus carefully put his caterpillar into it. ‘It’s only till Paul comes home, I’ll move him into a proper box with muslin on top after tea.’

Cathy looked at the caterpillar.

‘Couldn’t it go in with the silk worm? Or that green caterpillar with the red tail? You keep such a lot of boxes in the bedroom, and I don’t think it’s healthy.’

‘You’d better be careful, I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere that sort of caterpillar’s hairs are poisonous,’ said Jane.

Ginnie pretended to look knowledgeable about caterpillars.

‘It looks queer, as if it might turn at any minute. It wouldn’t surprise Miss Virginia Bell if it was a cocoon before Paul got in. What sort of an experiment did Paul say it was?’

Angus frowned, trying to remember exactly what Paul had said.

‘He’ll be able to tell by that caterpillar exactly what the weather will be like next Christmas.’

Ginnie gave the caterpillar a gentle nudge.

‘How? Does it sing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”?’

Cathy put the plate of sandwiches on a tray.

‘Will you children go and wash, those that don’t wash don’t want any tea.’

With a clatter and a rush the children ran upstairs, Jane and Ginnie to the bathroom, Angus to introduce his caterpillar to the rest of his pets. Over hand washing Ginnie whispered:

‘You know, Jane, I told Mummy the top came off that cut, and that’s why Matron put a plaster on it. Well the top didn’t come off, I pulled it off on purpose.’

‘Whatever for?’

Ginnie lowered her voice still further.

‘You know that new girl Alison in my form. Well, she only just sat down this morning when Matron came in and began mutter-mutter with Mam-zelle, who was teaching us French. Then Mam-zelle nodded and said “Vraiment” and pushed her hands and eyebrows into the air the way she does, and then Matron took Alison away. And she never came back.’

Jane was using some pumice stone on an inky finger.

‘I expect she was wanted at home.’

‘That’s what I thought at first, but I asked everybody and nobody saw her leave. So I had an idea. I thought perhaps she’d done something awful, and was being kept in Matron’s room till the police came. That’s why I pulled the top off my cut to find out.’

Jane laid down the pumice stone and went to the towel.

‘What was she doing?’

‘At first I thought she wasn’t there, because she wasn’t in Matron’s ordinary room, but when Matron went to get some plaster I looked in that other special room where the bed is, and there was Alison asleep. She was properly asleep, because I leant right over her to find out.’

Jane finished drying her hands.

‘You’re a terribly nosey girl, Ginnie.’

‘I’m glad I was nosey, for I’m positive there’s a mystery, and I’m going to discover it.’

Jane raised her voice.

‘Angus, do come and wash, you know I have to wait and see you’re clean.’ Ginnie took advantage of Jane’s back being turned to let the water run away, and to hide her hands in the towel, but Jane was too quick for her. ‘Hold them out, let’s see them.’ Unwillingly Ginnie held out her hands. ‘Look at your wrists!’

Ginnie scowled.

‘Mummy said “Wash your hands,” she said nothing about wrists.’

Jane put the plug back in the basin and turned on the water again.

‘Get a move on.’

Ginnie and Angus bent over the basin. Ginnie nudged Angus with her elbow.

‘I don’t know about you, Angus, but seeing I never like washing my hands, giving them an extra special wash for Miss Bloggs offends me all over.’

Jane leant against the bathroom wall, waiting for the other two to finish.

‘I wish I could like Miss Bloggs more. Sometimes I feel awfully mean about her. Look at the way she gives us presents for Christmas and birthdays, and I’m sure she hasn’t much money. I bet she’s giving you something nice for your birthday, Angus. What a miserable thing it is that you can’t like people just because you know you ought to.’ She went back to the basin. ‘That’s better, Ginnie, let’s look at yours, Angus. Yes, they’ll do. Now do get a move on, both of you. I’m hungry.’