In a house the size of this one there was, of course, a huge attic space. So large was it in fact that it was divided up into separate rooms. One of these was fairly empty, deliberately left so to provide additional play room for a large family on rainy days and here the contents were therefore minimal – a packing case or two, an old broom pole, a couple of stools – things which fertile imaginations could with ease turn into the props required to act out an episode of Swiss Family Robinson or the siege of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf’s castle of Torquilstone. Beyond this room were the attics proper, which is to say the general storage areas more normally associated with such space. In the first, there was some semblance of order and only a thin film of dust, for here were stored items required on a regular but seasonable basis. In the summer months, you would find neatly piled skis and snowshoes, graded by size. In the winter months there were tennis racquets, parasols whose bright colours were shielded from view by wrappings to protect them from dust and damage and buckets and spades.
The furthest room, which was also the largest, was far more chaotic, containing the detritus of furniture and items from previous homes which were too valuable to throw out but too ugly to display or which had been kept because they might one day ‘come in useful’ but which had been long since forgotten. There were packing cases and trunks crammed full of items which had never been unpacked between one house move and the next. There was a large oil painting, covered over with hessian sacking which had torn a little in one corner revealing a section of gilded frame and just enough of the canvas to see something of the artist’s signature, although with accumulation of dirt it was difficult to make out whether the first initial was A or M and whether the surname was Barras or Barrass. There was a huge mirror as well, of the sort which would not have looked out of place in a Georgian drawing room, also in a gilded frame although this one was far more intricately and delicately carved than that of the portrait. There was a Queen Anne writing desk, sadly damaged in the last move although not entirely forgotten – Con periodically thought of it and wondered where it had gone and whether it might have a hidden drawer concealing romantic papers. She said nothing about it, however, knowing that were she to do so she would be mercilessly teased about the prospect of finding, as Catherine Morland had done, nothing more interesting than a long-lost laundry list.
Only one person knew that there truly was a secret in the attic at Freudesheim.
A delicate china cup and saucer was carefully placed on the desk.
Hilda Annersley looked up with a strained smile. “Rosalie, as ever my saviour.”
“It was either a cup of tea or a stiff gin and tonic, I reckoned,” said the Head’s Secretary. “What did Joey want this time?”
Hilda gazed out of the French windows to where a slim dark-haired figure could be seen retreating from the School towards the hedge which separated it from the garden of Freudesheim.
“Another letter from an Old Girl wanting us to find a place at short notice for a young second cousin in impoverished circumstances. Joey wanted us to oblige at a reduced fee.”
“What did you say?”
Hilda sighed. “I tried to say no. Honestly, Rosalie, I tried! But you know how she is. She knows that the Grieveson twins are leaving at the end of term so I can’t say we haven’t got the room and she’s already written to Madge about a bursary for the girl.”
“Hmph! I really don’t know how she does it. Every time, she twists us all around her little finger. .”
In the attic at Freudesheim, a slight change took place.
A delicate china cup and saucer was carefully placed on the desk. It was accompanied by two of Karen’s delightful biscuits.
“Coffee. Strong. And a sugar fix,” Rosalie said, eyeing the Head with a stern look. “What did she want?”
“She wants us to change the date of the Sale because Jack will be away at a conference on the date we’d arranged and she wants him there to run the Crazy Golf again. I couldn’t very well tell her that we fixed on that day precisely because Jack asked us to in order to make sure he wouldn’t get roped in.”
“She’s already written to the Lady Opener to say that it will be held on the 30th instead.”
“Hilda, she has no right to do that!”
“Rosalie, I know that. You know that. She knows that. But it hasn’t stopped her doing it and we’d look such fools if we now wrote to say we’re reverting to the 22nd.”
“Hmph! I really don’t know how she does it. All those children and she remains as enthusiastic and energetic as ever she was at school, whilst the rest of us grow a little bit more weary and a little bit older every time she steps down the path towards us.”
In the attic at Freudesheim, a slight change took place.
A crystal schooner was carefully placed on the desk.
“Sherry. Unless you’d rather I got you a whisky?” Rosalie offered.
“Alcohol of any description is just fine, bless you,” Hilda replied.
“Well? Now what?”
“She’s planning another Reunion. It’s to take place in the week after the end of term and it’s going to be a big one, Rosalie. War years and before. And she’s already sent out the invitations to say that as the current girls will have gone home, the Old Girls can all stay in the school.”
“But we’d already agreed that the domestic staff could have a week’s leave then! It’s just not possible.”
“So you would have thought,” Hilda said, grimly. “But she’d already approached Gwyneth and apparently Gwyneth had already had second thoughts about allowing them the time off as she’d rather get the spring cleaning done straight away and let them take their leave afterwards.”
“Hmph! I really don’t know how she does it. She always comes out on top, as fresh as a daisy and smelling of roses whilst the rest of us wallow in the mud.”
In the attic at Freudesheim, Felicity and Felix were exploring and had reached the crowded back room.
“Lot of junk if you ask me,” Felix said dismissively.
“That mirror’s pretty. Do you think Mamma would let me hang it in my room?”
“Where, you ninny? Look at the size of it! You’ve not got anywhere near enough wall space for something that big!”
“Well, perhaps there’s something else? There’s a picture of some sort here. Help me take this sacking off.”
Together they removed the covering from the gilt-framed portrait and then stood looking at it contemplatively.
“Not exactly a pretty thing to hang in your room, is it?” Felix said.
“Who is it do you think?”
“I don’t know. It looks a tiny bit like Mamma but she’s not old and ugly.”
“No, everyone always says that she looks as young and fetching as she did as a schoolgirl. Cover it back up, Fe.”
The sacking went back over the portrait, hiding the subject’s face and so the two children failed to see the smirk which appeared on its lips.
Downstairs, the ever youthful Joey rang the San to ask her husband to come home immediately to remove a splinter from the finger of their youngest daughter, knowing that he dare not refuse. Upstairs in the attic, another wrinkle appeared on the brow of the subject of the portrait.
Chapter End Notes:
With a nod of acknowledgment to Oscar Wilde.