“Can’t we pull it up again?” said Augusta, who had been rather gingerly investigating an enormous pile of fabrics in various states of decomposition and had not even noticed the bang.
“It only opens from below,” said Charlie tersely. “It hasn’t been the same ever since one Christmas when Phil and Geoff had a bit of an accident. That must have been – oh, years ago now. But it was one of those jobs that never quite got done, with the result that we’ll have to stay up here until someone realises what’s happened.”
“Which could be hours,” said Millie.
Augusta was not accustomed to giving in to fate so easily. She preferred to sweep fate aside with one magnificent hand and rise, like a phoenix, from the ruins of her shattered fortunes. It was true that this could sometimes more closely resemble a bruised, blinded stagger from a disaster area, but it was the principle that counted.
“Well, we could pull up a few floorboards and make a hole in the ceiling below,” she suggested.
“Yes, good idea,” said Phoebe dryly. “I suppose you’re prepared to foot the bill for the repair of the ceiling.”
“Oh.” Augusta’s face fell slightly. After a moment it lit up again. “When it happened to me and my two friends at school we climbed out of a skylight.”
She turned her face towards the eaves.
“I don’t know that there is a skylight,” said Millie, peering upwards doubtfully.
“I haven’t a clue,” said Charlie. “There isn’t any light coming in, at any rate.”
“I’m sure I’ve seen skylights, though,” said Augusta. “In the roof.”
“Do you mean this roof, or just roofs generally?” said Phoebe cautiously.
“Well, maybe we should have a look. Shine the torches around a bit,” said Charlie. “The rooms on the top floor are hardly used any more and no-one’s going to hear us from the second floor. We could be here hours if we don’t get out somehow.”
It was some time before Millie gave a cry of triumph.
“There is a skylight! It’s so dirty it’s not surprising we couldn’t see any light through it. I shouldn’t think it’s been cleaned for years.”
Getting onto the roof was not a difficult task. Getting back off it again proved to be somewhat more of a challenge. The slope was a relatively shallow one, which Charlie was glad of, since she strongly doubted her ability to stop Augusta and Phoebe cavorting about on it. Augusta was already at the edge, kneeling almost in the gutter and peering down.
“It’s funny how different the garden looks from up here,” she observed.
“This is quite a good roof, really,” said Phoebe, joining her a little more cautiously. “You should do something with it, Charlie.”
“Is there anyone around who can get us down?” asked Charlie. Her own idea had been for one of them to lean out of the skylight and shout for help, but the Emersons were dashing about in a way that made her feel slightly sick. Even Millie was picking her way towards the edge. Charlie tried not to look at her.
“You could put on quite a magnificent show up here,” said Phoebe. “You know, line dancing on the ridge.”
“No!” almost screamed Charlie. She wasn’t scared of heights, but if they hadn’t been on a roof three storeys above the ground she would have been very tempted to bang Augusta’s and Phoebe’s heads together. She took a deep, calming breath and opened her mouth to speak.
“There’s someone coming!” yelled Augusta, leaping to her feet and coming within an ace of falling off the roof.
“Be careful,” said Millie, who had ventured down to the edge and was finding that as long as you didn’t actually look downwards it was all right.
“I’m always careful,” said Augusta with absent-minded dignity. She screwed her eyes up, trying to identify the far-off figures. “I bet it’s the others coming back.”
“Hallo!” called Phoebe, waving her arms. The figures showed no sign that they had seen anything.
“They’re way off. They won’t hear that,” said Augusta. She inhaled deeply, opened her mouth and let out a screeching yell that made Phoebe and Millie clap their hands to their ears. The figures, which were already a little closer, came to a halt. Then one of them gave a roar and began to run. A few minutes later David John came to a halt beneath their perch.
“You bloody damned woman!” he bellowed, making the windows rattle. “What in hell’s name are you doing?”
“Don’t swear in front of the children!” shouted Augusta. “We’re stuck, of course. Did you think we were up here for the good of our health?”
“Yes,” said David. Then, as Augusta moved forwards slightly, he blenched. “Get back, you bloo – blooming fool! If you fall off that roof and kill yourself, I will divorce you.”
“The attic door’s shut and we can’t get out,” said Augusta, ignoring this. “Come and let us out, will you?”
There was, naturally, a certain amount of laughter at their expense, but a few minutes later there was a shout from below.
“Hey! Do any of you actually want to come out, or are you staying up there?”
Evidently David had been misplaced somewhere between the side door and the attics, for it was Sphinx whose face they saw peering up through the skylight. He politely assisted Charlie and his mother down to the attic floor, but as Millie was about to lower herself, there came another roar from below. She overbalanced, taking Sphinx by surprise and landing on top of him in an untidy heap.
“Oh, bloody hell,” she said under her breath, feeling her wrist gingerly. A moment later she realised that Sphinx had heard. “Sorry.”
“That’s fine,” said Sphinx in a slightly strangled voice. “Though I admit I wouldn’t object if you took your knee out of my stomach.”
“Oh, I am sorry.” Millie scrambled to her feet, glad that it was dingy and he couldn’t see that her face was aflame with embarrassment. Before either of them could say any more, Charlie appeared again.
“Hurry up, you two. There’s an emergency. Hilda has disappeared.”