Stella clears her throat. ‘There are three new girls since your last visit.’ She quickly points to each of us, says our names, while Steph and another girl co-opted to help are bringing in serving dishes, putting them on the table: roast dinner. As Stella points to me and says Riley Kain, Astrid’s eyes fall on mine. A brief moment of something crosses her face – curiosity, that soon fades to disinterest? Then she is interrupted by Stella passing her a dish. The curious glance returns.
The usual chatter around the table is gone. Everyone eats silently, even Madison, while Astrid holds court. She talks with Stella about the running of the house; asks about window repairs. Every now and then her eyes fall on one of us, and she’ll ask a question: about work, or Keswick. All pleasant and chit-chatty. No order in it, not working her way around the table or any logic to it you can see.
Then she turns and her eyes fall on Madison: playing with her food, slumped in her seat, eyes lowered. ‘Madison, isn’t it?’ she says.
Madison looks up, nods: her eyes, visible now, are defiant. Something in my stomach twists.
Amusement crosses Astrid’s face. ‘Not hungry today, dear?’
‘Not really. Can I be excused?’
Stella’s sharp intake of breath is audible in a room too quiet.
‘On one condition. Tell me exactly what you are thinking, first.’
Doubt crosses Madison’s face; she shakes it off. Please, Madison, don’t be an idiot, I plead silently.
‘All right, then. It’s my one weekend off this month, and I had plans. But she insisted we all be here.’ Madison glares at Stella.
‘Oh, I see. I’m sorry you missed your plans.’ Astrid says. ‘What were they?’ A tinge of red crosses Madison’s cheeks. ‘A boy, I’m guessing? My, my. Really, Stella,’ she says, looking at her daughter now. ‘They don’t all have to be here today, not if they have plans. You know I really just come to see how you are. You know what it is like to be a mother, to worry about your daughter.’ There is a malicious twist to her words.
Stella’s lips are set in a thin line. ‘I think I know what is best for my girls.’
Madison clears her throat. ‘I told you what I was thinking, like you asked; can I go now?’
Astrid looks at her daughter, an eyebrow raised in a question.
‘Stay and finish your lunch,’ Stella says.
Madison scowls. ‘It’s not fair. None of the other houses are run like this. She treats us like prisoners!’
Too far. All the girls look at her in horror. I plead with my eyes: stop this; apologise now!
Astrid smiles. ‘I think, dear Madison, you would be able to tell the difference between this and a prison, if you ever found yourself in one. You may go now.’
Madison looks between her and Stella, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Stella nods faintly. ‘Go on,’ she says.
Madison puts her napkin on the table, pushes her chair out. Walks stiffly to the door and is gone.
Astrid laughs. ‘What a serious bunch you are! Doesn’t anyone have any stories to tell? Perhaps one of the new girls.’ Her eyes fall on me. ‘Kylie, was it?’
‘Riley,’ I answer, trying not to react to her saying my name so close to Kyla.
‘When did you arrive in Keswick?’
‘Earlier this week. I’m here for the CAS intake.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Chelmsford. But I love the mountains, and I want to work for National Parks.’ I start to rush out an explanation of what they do before she has even asked. My voice trails away.
She raises an eyebrow. ‘At last: a chatty one. And how did you—’
‘Oh drat. Sorry!’ Stella interrupts, springing up as a toppled jug spreads water across the table. Steph dashes for a cloth; Astrid gets up out of her seat before the water can run onto her lap. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ Stella says again.
‘Stop fussing,’ Astrid snaps.
She and Stella leave the dining room.
The door swings shut, and as if we all had been holding our breath, we let it out in one collective gasp.
‘Is she always like that?’ I ask Ellie, sat next to me.
She nods. ‘She’s horrible to Stella, isn’t she? Can you believe what she said to her, about knowing what it is like to worry about your daughter, when Stella’s daughter is missing? Nasty.’
Then everyone starts talking in hushed tones about Madison, what she said, how long Stella will confine her to house as punishment, but I can’t get Astrid’s words out of my head. Like Ellie said, it was nasty, but not just the way Ellie meant. There was something else twisting behind her words that niggles and worries inside.
Feigning headache, I leave the others and wander out, thinking I’ll look for Madison. But when I start to cross the reception area, my feet pause. Stella’s office; the hidden door. Will they be in the same sitting room they used to go?
I shouldn’t. But it’ll be locked anyhow, won’t it? I look around; no one is here. I cross behind the desk to the office door, reach a hand to the knob. It turns and I push the door open. Too late, I realise my mistake: what if they are in here, instead? But the room is empty. Behind me I hear voices and footsteps heading this way. I step through into the office and pull the door shut behind me.
What if they come here now?
My eyes dart about the room, my ears strain for footsteps. All I can hear are some low voices beyond the door: not Stella or Astrid, but some of the girls. They’re not moving: they’re staying out there, probably in armchairs by the window, and not going anywhere any time soon.
My feet start the reluctant few steps to the curtains that cover the door, somehow feeling half frozen, each move an effort. I should have gone back to my room, or looked for Madison: anything but this.
Something on the wall catches my eye. A recent photo of Astrid that had been hidden in the box in my room hangs there. I pause, look around, and spot a few of the others.
So. When Astrid comes for a visit, Stella hangs her photos back up; when Astrid leaves, they are hidden in a box. I shake my head. What weird family am I part of?
Maybe it is time to find out. I pull the curtain out, step behind it. Push the door open and look through.
And it is just like my dream: a narrow hall. I used to play hide and seek here. It’s dusty and I put a finger under my nose, try not to sneeze. Not used any more?
When I step through and let the door shut behind me, I’m plunged into darkness. A torch: there used to be a torch hidden here, in the corner. I feel along the wall and reach down, but find nothing.
I walk, slow and silent, one hand touching the wall. The hall stretches past one room, then turns ninety degrees. There are a few slivers of light from ventilation panels near the floor. And voices.
I crouch down near a panel, and listen.
‘…but don’t do it, please don’t: I’m begging you.’ Stella.
Astrid titters. ‘You should see your face. My, my: so fierce. It’s a shame you can’t put that energy to better use.’
‘I see no better purpose to my life. Isn’t serve and protect the young people of our country part of your official job mandate, as JCO?’
‘Oh, it is, and I take that very seriously. The bad apples must go to prevent rot in the barrel, as you well know. These girls, here – they aren’t your daughters. You know the consequences of error: that could be a painful mistake.’
Silence. Even from the other side of the wall, it feels strained. Is Stella caught in her mother’s eyes? I shiver.
‘I told you I had news for you today about Lucy; you haven’t asked me yet,’ Astrid says, at last. ‘Don’t you want to know?’
‘Of course I do. Please tell me.’
‘Stella, prepare yourself for a shock.’
‘You know how I told you weeks ago that Lucy was killed by a terrorist bomb? I’ve found some…irregularities in the Lorder records on this matter.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It appears her death was faked.’
I’m stunned. Stella had been told I died in that bomb? She didn’t say; didn’t ask about it. And now she isn’t saying anything I can hear in response to news that I’m alive: news it seems she shouldn’t know. And I’m hoping – praying – she is a good actress.
‘I don’t understand. Where is she then?’ Stella asks, finally.
There is a pause. ‘I have no idea. She is still listed as officially dead, but unofficially, she is missing. There seems to be some interest in finding her, from a number of…interesting places. I do wonder what that girl has been up to.’
‘Nothing to worry you, I’m sure!’ Stella snaps, too quick, and I’m worried. This is a dangerous game. Somehow, I know – either from traces of memory, or observation today, or both – Astrid is adept at reading what people say and don’t say. Shouldn’t Stella be in hysterical tears at the news that I’m alive?
‘Really? We shall see,’ Astrid says. ‘But no matter: you know I’ve kept my half of our bargain, and found out everything I can about what happened to her. I’ll protect her and bring her home safe to you if I can. Darling girl, despite our differences, you know I only want what is best for you. As soon as I find out anything of Lucy’s whereabouts, so will you. But don’t ask anything more of me. You will be disappointed.’
Soon their conversation turns to other things; roof maintenance needed, damp in the cellar. I’m stiff and cold from crouching down in this unheated hall. Time to make an escape while they’re both still in there and accounted for.
I can’t go back the way I came; there are sure to be eyes outside Stella’s office door. I stand carefully, ease my muscles and creep slowly forward, one hand on the wall. Their voices fade as I reach another door.
Carefully I pull the door towards me: nothing! I start to panic: is it locked? It didn’t have a lock before, I’m sure of it. I feel along the door; no padlock, but there is a simple latch. I release it. Step through the door into the utility room that is behind the kitchen, then back along a hall.
Somehow my feet are remembering, more and more, how to get around this house. I look down before I reach a main hall, brush at my clothes to get rid of the dust.
Later, back in my room for the night, my mind is spinning with Astrid: the things she said, the way she said them. The twist of the knife in her words.
And that Stella was told I had died. Was this before I reported myself found, before she knew I was on my way back to her? She never told me, so I can’t ask without admitting I was listening in. But why didn’t she tell me? I don’t understand her, at all.
Astrid said she’s looking for me, that she’ll bring me home if she finds me. Yet here I am, and she obviously doesn’t know about it; Stella hasn’t told her. She doesn’t trust her.
But Astrid has noticed something is up with Stella, I’m sure of it. She won’t let it go. If Astrid works out what it is, I’m in trouble. Despite her assurances to Stella, I don’t trust her, either. If Lorders find out I’m here, they’ll come for me.
Careful, quiet, each step on tiptoes through Mummy’s office, but it is hard to be a spy in this stupid pink dress: it whispers and rustles as I move. I gather the skirt together and bunch it up in my hands to hold it still as I slip behind the curtains.
I push the door, step through and hold it partly open with my foot as I lean down to get the torch. Switch it on, then let the door swing shut.
I creep along the wall, around the corner, then crouch down to listen like a spy.
‘…be here soon.’ Mummy.
‘He indulges that child, as do you.’