Charlie passed over the ‘quietly and without a fuss,’ which conditions she felt had scarcely been fulfilled, and attempted to ascertain what had actually happened.
Poppy had been playing with the ancient dolls’ house, the one that had once been called La Maison des Poupees, but had more recently been christened The Mansion of Dust by a disgusted Will, who, as a quiet but obstinate five-year-old, had refused the position Millie had offered him as assistant dolls’ house cleaner. The name had stuck, but Poppy had always loved the house, and would sit with Auntie Con for hours, making stories about the dolls and rearranging the house into every conceivable pattern.
But today, as she lay on her stomach on front of the house, making up a story in which one of the dolls was a princess and was kidnapped right in front of the little girl’s nose, Mary-Lou had come to join her, ignoring the other children, who were engaged in some relatively quiet pursuit on the other side of the room.
“Hello, dear,” she cooed in her bell-like tones. Poppy, who had been so engrossed in her game that she hadn’t heard the door brush open, jumped, cracking the little-girl doll’s head against the ceiling. She looked round accusingly.
“You made me smash Thomasina’s head on the ceiling!”
Mary-Lou made a little pout.
“Oh dear,” she said, in tones that dripped like honey through holey bread. She reached out and prised the pink-clad toy from Poppy’s hand. “Let’s see if we can mend the poor wee cherub, shall we?”
“She’s a doll, not a cherub,” said Poppy, trying to grab Thomasina back. “Daddy can mend her. I don’t want you to.”
Mary-Lou sat back on her heels, managing to look hurt, sad and slightly annoyed all at the same time. In dignified silence she handed the doll back. Then she seemed to regain her caramely equilibrium.
“Of course, sweetie,” she said, leaning forward to smile dazzlingly into Poppy’s face. Poppy frowned and retreated slightly. “I completely understand. Daddy always knows best.” She gave a tinkling laugh and stretched forward to tickle Poppy under the chin. This backfired, however, since at the same moment Poppy scrambled to her feet and backed away.
“I’m going to find him,” she announced.
“But darling!” cried Mary-Lou, starting to her feet, a look of unutterable sadness on her face. “We haven’t finished our lovely little chat yet – we were getting on so well. Why don’t you show me this perfectly sweet dollies’ house, pet?”
Poppy scowled and Mary-Lou went on, unaware that she was sinking, ever deeper, into the annoyance and disapproval of Poppy.
“Why don’t you have a sweet, honey-bunny?” She pulled one out and waved it in a would-be tempting manner under Poppy’s nose. Poppy’s eyes crossed slightly as she stared down at it, the expression on her face suggesting that it was made of some substance that emitted a particularly unpleasant aroma. With a sigh, Mary-Lou replaced it in her pocket and glanced at her watch.
“Well,” she said, bending over and smiling gently into Poppy’s unmoving countenance, “I have enjoyed our talk. I have to go now, but I’ll come back. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
Stacia looked up as Mary-Lou sashayed adorably out of the room.
“Why are you looking so upset, Poppy?” she demanded.
“I don’t like her; she’s stupid.” Poppy frowned again. Then her face brightened as she caught sight of what Mary-Lou had dropped on the floor – a little white packet. Poppy bent and picked it up. “She’s left some sherbet, look!”
She was about to plunge a finger into the sherbet when Will swooped down and whisked it out of her hands.
“Will!” she wailed, under the impression that he was simply feeling a bit peckish. “Give it back!”
“Not on your life,” he said severely. “Who knows what this could be?”
“It’s sherbet,” said Poppy, confused.
“Maybe.” Will looked mysterious. “But, after all, Mary-Lou was lurking around outside the house in the middle of the night.” He opened the bag and peered inside, watched in awe by his younger siblings. “I think it might be drugs.”
Stacia, already excited by his sinister manner, gave a screech that signified mixed horror and elation.
“Drugs?” she squealed. “What, really?”
“Shhh!” Will hissed. “She mustn’t suspect anything. Look, Stacia, you take this down to Mum and tell her – quietly and without any fuss – that we think it might be something dodgy. The rest of us will wait here. Go on.” He gave her a little push, and tried to think what to do next.