“What a pleasant garden,” said Amy conventionally. The elders had swiftly disposed of their juniors, John suggesting that Ashley, Stacia and Poppy show Ricky and Randa their tree-house and other haunts. Judging by the looks they gave him this was not a suggestion they were in favour of, but they speedily vanished, leaving Millie, who had been called down by her mother to join them, and John to entertain the older Emersons.
“Yes, it’s always been a good place for children to play in,” said Millie, equally politely. There were a few minutes’ silence during which Amy and Millie desperately racked their brains for more things to say, John and Constance Rose glanced and smiled at one another, Phoebe looked around the well-kept flowerbeds and mentally rearranged them, and Sphinx stared at the back of Millie’s head with a look of such fixed intensity that an observer could have been forgiven for thinking he was planning on decapitating her. Finally Millie, unable to find any more polite nothings, burst out with the question that most of her siblings were longing to have answered.
“So what are you doing up here?”
“It was Mum’s idea, actually,” said Amy. “She came up here once before, ages ago, and she thought it’d be nice to see the place again. She used to know Mrs Maynard – the Mrs Maynard who used to live here – when she was at school.”
“You mean our Nana,” said Millie stiffly. Amy glanced at her.
“I’m sorry – were you awfully fond of her?” she said, awkwardly.
“Fairly, I suppose,” said Millie.
“Our Granddad died two years ago, six months after Gran,” said Amy. When Millie didn’t reply she gave up for the time being. After all, people could get pretty funny about death, and she’d never seen the point of trying to talk to people who didn’t want to. Far too much effort. She dropped behind and talked to Sphinx instead.
“Bit odd, aren’t they?” she said quietly.
“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx, who was staring straight ahead of him.
“Do you think it’s just that they don’t like strangers?”
“Mm-hm,” said Sphinx.
“Or that they didn’t like us walking in on them – but we didn’t know, so I can’t see why they’d mind.”
“Or it could be because Mrs Maynard’s just died,” Amy went on.
“Are you even listening to me?” Amy paused suddenly, glanced at Millie’s back as she strode along in front of them, then looked back at Sphinx’s face, which was living up to his name. “Don’t tell me the heart of stone has finally melted?”
Sphinx’s face looked, if possible, even more as though it was made of granite. Amy debated briefly whether to cross-examine him about his feelings for Millie, but decided that it was quite as likely that he had taken a violent dislike to her as that he had fallen instantly in love, and that if that was the case it was probably safer not to pursue the subject. Beginning to wish that Mum had thought of some other idea, like visiting the fiery pits of hell, she trotted forward to try talking to Millie again.
“Who was the other lady who was with you?” she asked. “I think your father must have forgotten to introduce her.”
“Probably. He was a bit surprised when you all walked in,” said Millie pointedly. “She’s Hilda Straw – a friend of Dad’s from work.”
“He’s into politics, isn’t he?” said Amy somewhat vaguely, since she was only aware of the fact because Charlie had mentioned it in passing before chivvying them all out into the garden.
“He’s a politician,” said Millie. Amy, recognising this as a rather neat snub, subsided and spent the next few minutes looking at the flowerbeds and silently chortling to herself. She became aware that John and Constance Rose had finally broken through the bounds of agonising adolescent shyness and were conversing jerkily. Then she looked around as a series of screeches rang across the garden. A moment later there was a crash and someone came flying through the – unfortunately closed – window.