The Wonderland House

Savage Mystery Contest ~ First Place
Robin Hillard

Photo Credit: Clarice Barbato-Dunn (CC-by-nd)

“Good riddance,” my father said, when Uncle Jasper disappeared. “Jane’s better off without that lump of dirt.”

I did not agree. After a traumatic holiday, I loathed Aunt Jane, but Uncle Jasper was still my favourite relative. He had been a wonderful playmate, always ready to share my dollhouse fantasies.

Aunt Jane’s dollhouse was a family heirloom. My great-grandfather was a famous cabinetmaker. He fashioned the dollhouse for a businessman who went bankrupt and could not pay his bill. Great-Grandfather kept the dollhouse and it stayed with the family, passing through the generations until my grandparents moved into a retirement home and it went to Aunt Jane.

As the eldest daughter, my mother should have had the little house, but my father was still in the army, we were moving through a series of defence force homes, and my grandmother would not trust removalists with the family treasure.

After my father left the army, my mother was able to realise her dream of a settled home, but by then Aunt Jane had the dollhouse. And, thanks to the argument on That Holiday, the sisters were not on speaking terms. For me, bad memories of my aunt were overshadowed by the excitement of meeting a baby giraffe at the zoo, after my mother collected me from the ill-fated visit.

Once we were in our new home, I was too excited about having my first pet to brood on the weeks I spent with a once-beloved aunt. My days were spent worshipping the fluffy grey kitten my father named Grisette.

Then Uncle Jasper disappeared.

He was a fly-in worker for Northern Mines and, after a two-week shift on site, he should have taken a plane to the city, followed by a taxi ride home to his wife. He never arrived.

Aunt Jane was waiting at the airport when her husband was due to fly back to the mine, but no Jasper turned up to catch the plane.

That prompted a call from a tearful Jane who wanted her sister’s support. My kindhearted mother took the phone. “Maybe Jasper met up with some old friends, and lost track of the time,” she suggested after murmuring the usual platitudes.

“Maybe he’s got another woman!”

When she came back to her cold dinner, my mother shared that waspish rejoinder with us. “Good riddance,” my father said, adding that Jane was better off without that lump of dirt. My parents were surprised that, in these troubled times, anyone would leave his job before he was certain of another one.

“Perhaps his deeds were catching up with him,” my father said. “And he couldn’t face the music.”

I tried to imagine the kind of music my good-natured uncle couldn’t face.


Eventually, Aunt Jane decided her husband was not coming back. She filed for a divorce, left a company which, I was sure, were glad to see her go, and sold her big house. She announced her intention to go travelling and, to my delight, gave the dollhouse to us.

She wrapped the dolls and furniture in bubble wrap, and put them, together with the house, swaddled in a blanket, in the back of her van and drove to our house. Although they had talked on the phone, it was the first time since That Holiday the sisters had met face to face. They spent a happy afternoon remembering their childhood games.

“Really our parents were very remiss, letting children play with such a valuable antique,” my mother said.

Aunt Jane disagreed. “The house was originally made for little girls, and we were very careful.”

“The Wonderland House,” my mother said softly.

I knew that name from my mother’s stories, and from the book we read together at bedtime. I had called my favourite doll Alice, after Lewis Carroll’s little girl and drawn pictures of my mother playing in the Wonderland House.

“Remember our tea parties?” Aunt Jane looked almost pretty when she smiled.

I smiled too. Those tea parties were one of my favourite stories. My mother would tell me how she and her sister made tiny foil cups for the dollhouse dolls and used a dropper to fill them with Coca-Cola coffee.

“We made cakes from biscuit crumbs for those lucky dolls,” Aunt Jane said, turning to me for the first time that afternoon, “but, of course we had to drink the coffee ourselves and eat little cakes. They were almost too tiny to taste.”

There was only one bad moment on that visit. As Aunt Jane was leaving my mother murmured sympathy for poor Jasper.

“He would have been a good man,” Aunt Jane said, ‘if he had not been led astray.”

I did not know why that comment made my mother so angry. She pushed Aunt Jane outside and slammed the door behind her. For no particular reason, she gave me a slice of chocolate cake before putting everything away.

Whatever she may have said about the way her own parents cared for an antique, my mother trusted me with the Wonderland House, and let me set it up in my bedroom.

That night, as I unwrapped the dolls and furniture, I remembered the games I’d played with Uncle Jasper. He would have enjoyed putting the tiny pieces in the little rooms but, this evening, I only had my kitten to keep me company. I loved Grisette, but she was not as good at thinking up ideas as Uncle Jasper had been. He would introduce the dolls to some activity, then later we would copy the game “in full size” as he called it.

After we had a tea party—only pretend as Uncle Jasper was not interested in making tiny cups—we would go into the kitchen and have “full-size” tea and cake. He made a string skipping rope with rolled paper handles for the little girl doll and followed that by a cutting a length of rope and attaching wooden handles to make a “full size” one for me. He would sit in the shade and to watch me skip. He also made a tiny ball for the Alice doll and took me outside to bounce a tennis ball.

We never included my aunt in these games because, as Uncle Jasper explained, “Jane is funny about her toys.” I did not like hearing the Wonderland House described as a toy, but it was fun to share a secret with a grown-up.

When he was home, Uncle Jasper was free all day, but Aunt Jane had a regular working week, so there was plenty of time for our fun. The housekeeper, Mildred, was supposed to keep an eye on me, but when she finished her work, she’d settle in front of the TV. I agreed with my uncle that we should leave her be.

The days with Uncle Jasper passed happily as we played with the Wonderland house, following that with “full size” games, and short visits to the girl next door. I realise now that when Jasper described these visits to his wife, he made it sound as if I spent most of my time with my friends, while he played golf.

Everything was going well until, one afternoon, a bomb scare closed Aunt Jane’s office and the staff were all sent home. We did not hear the van pull up, and my aunt came inside to find Mildred dozing in front of the TV while we were moving from the dollhouse to a new “full-size” game. The girl doll, Alice, lay in her tiny bed and I was scrambling into the big one that took up half the room.

The man doll was in bed with Alice, telling her a story and I knew Uncle Jasper would climb in beside me.

Aunt Jane was furious. I thought she must have really loved the Wonderland House to be so upset when we played with it.

She blamed me for “teasing your poor uncle,” and yelled insults while Uncle Jasper twisted the hem of his untucked shirt.

I was packed off to bed and a phone call to my mother had her booked on the next flight.

I did not see Uncle Jasper again.

The following day, when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, Aunt Jane yelled at me again, and sent me straight back to my room without as much as a piece of toast.

Luckily, my mother had managed to get an overnight flight. I did not spend too long sobbing into my pillow before she came in to hug me, throw my clothes into a case, and carry me out to the hire-car.

We stopped for pancakes on the way to the hotel, and with a few gentle questions my mother was able to make sense of the scene.

“I could strangle my sister,” she said, patting my shoulder. “It’s not your fault, lovey,”


The following days were full of treats, to make up, as my mother said, “For your aunt’s unkindness.”

I enjoyed going to the cinema, having ice-creams, and visiting the zoo, but I wished my mother would not include Uncle Jasper in her condemnation of the relatives. I tried to explain that he did not mean any harm when he let me play with the Wonderland House.

I told her about our games, and she agreed that there was no harm in having tea parties or bouncing tennis balls and her only comment about the doll’s story time was to suggest that in the narrow bed we might have found the “full-size” game uncomfortable. “You probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.” Which was what I thought at the time.

Now we had the dollhouse.

I opened the hinged front and peered into the little rooms, then I undid the bubble wrap and put each tiny piece of furniture into its proper place. I unwrapped the dolls and introduced them to Grisette. She tried to poke Alice and, looking at her sharp little claws, I decided she should play with her own toys. I tossed a twisted pipe cleaner, and she was happy to chase it, batting it with her paw and pouncing, like the tiger she probably imagined herself to be.

I turned back to the dollhouse, stroking the tiny fridge that my grandmother made, to bring the kitchen up to date. Each generation made some small change, as they would in a real family home. I thought the last little parcel must be Aunt Jane’s contribution, but she lacked my grandmother’s sensitive touch. The bottle was tiny on a human scale, but it was still way too big for a dollhouse.

I needed a magnifying glass to read the words “Drink me” on the minuscule label. That must be a potion for the Alice doll which, of course, I would have to drink for her. I was old enough to wonder whether the liquid was Coca-Cola or tap water, but young enough to be drawn into the game.

I decided the bottle was too big to go into the dollhouse. As I pulled out the tiny cork, it rolled across the floor. The movement attracted Grisette, but when the cork rolled against the wall, and she lost interest. She looked around for something else.

I had the bottle open, ready to offer the potion to Alice before drinking it myself, but as I reached for the doll, Grisette butted her head against my hand and sent the liquid splashing into the carpet. There was a smell of burning wool and a black-edged hole.

What would have happened to the little doll if she drank the potion?

What would have happened to me?

Aunt Jane had been almost pretty when she talked about her childhood games, but what had she been thinking? Had she really rung my mother for sympathy? Or was she playing her own nasty game? Did she want to hurt the child she blamed for the loss of her husband?

My aunt had filled the bottle and written tiny letters on the label. And she had talked about the tea parties where the girls ate and drank for their dolls. I heard again the words: “He would have been a good man if…”

I knew my mother blamed Uncle Jasper as well as Aunt Jane for the dismal end to That Holiday. What would she say when she saw the evil liquid that burned her carpet and might have burned me?

Would she hold my kind uncle partly responsible for Aunt Jane’s act? Or would she see the Wonderland House as an evil influence that was dangerous for us all?

That was how my child-self thought about the world.

Tonight, as an adult, coming to spend Christmas with my parents, I see a different world.

I know, and know my mother knew, the antique dollhouse was not the cause, or even the trigger, for Aunt Jane’s fury. It was the sight of a narrow bed, a little girl scrambling under the sheets, and a husband with his shirt hanging out. Had there been no dollhouse, Uncle Jasper would have found a different game to lead me along the path he had chosen.

I also know my aunt was not quite sane, that in her sly, twisted mind, a little girl had stolen the man she loved.

We had a wonderful evening. Over dinner my parents gave me news of friends from my father’s army days that still kept in touch, and we remembered the frantic housecleaning before the inspection that preceded every move. We laughed about my mother’s struggles as she established her garden in the present house and remembered the antics of a young Grisette, who was now a very dignified, elderly cat.

We did not talk about Aunt Jane, Uncle Jasper or the bones that had recently been found near the town where I spent that ill-fated holiday.

Now, in my old bedroom, I open the hinged front of the dollhouse and take out the Alice doll. Then I put her back, close the front of the house and gently pick up the mat I once put over a burnt hole, to hide the evidence of my aunt’s malice.

When I was living at home I’d become so used to that mat, that I rarely thought about the burnt carpet. Tonight, I look at my old room with fresh eyes. I remember how happily I arranged the dollhouse furniture, and how determined I had been, to hide the evidence of Aunt Jane’s final gift.

I have answers to questions that puzzled my younger self. I know why my aunt was so angry when she came home unexpectedly and why my parents detested my uncle. I can imagine the “music” my father said Jasper could not face. I also believe I know why my aunt’s husband never took a taxi from the airport and can guess where my aunt parked her van while she waited for his plane.

As I lie in bed, I say a quiet prayer to the powers that twice saved me from the evils of twisted adults and blessed me with parents who protected me.

But there is one final mystery, as I reach back through the years, trying to understand the incomprehensible complexities of my child mind. Why would a little girl, surrounded by her loving family, think she had to hide the evidence of a woman’s bitterness?

But that’s what children do.


Email: robin.hillard[at]

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard

Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.


Email: Robin.hillard[at]

One Ring

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard

If you drive east out of town, over the potholes of Ryan’s Road, you will come to a tiny settlement. Three houses. Where we live. When Duncan’s books began to sell we bought a little piece of land where I could make a garden while he wrote. We did not know what trouble we would have with our neighbours.

Like the morning our peace was shattered by banshee screams. Susannah burst out of the house next door, in her dressing gown, yelling at Annette.

I cursed. I did not want Duncan disturbed.

What was Susannah’s noise about? “My ring,” she screamed. “My beautiful sapphire ring!”

There was a story behind That Ring. As I had been told, it was left to “The Bulloch girl” by an elderly aunt, and Susannah claimed that it was meant for her, the will was drafted before her sister was born. Annette argued, with some reason, that a thirty-three-year-old was not a “girl,” the will had been rewritten several times, and she—barely out of her teens, should have the jewel. They went to court. Susannah won the case.

By now, Annette’s shrill voice rose over her sister’s scream. If it were not the ring, they would have been fighting about something else. We realised, almost as soon as we moved in, that they hated each other. Annette used to work in town, so why did she make that long, bumpy drive every day, to share a house with the sister she despised?

“It’s the will,” Duncan explained. “Jonsey told me all about it.” Jonsey lived in the other house on Riley’s road. A wrinkled old bushman, he scampered out of sight when I appeared, but he often chatted to Duncan.

That house had been the Bulloch family home, and as long as one of “the girls” lived there, it could not be sold. Neither sister would let the other have the house, so they stayed where they were.

“They could live anywhere,” I said, “with what they’ve saved.”

“Apparently there is a brother too, and he would get a share, if the house was sold. If we think the sisters fight, Jonsey says, we should see them with the Bulloch boy. The only thing those two agree about, is their contempt for him. So they have to stay in the place.”

Elderly spinsters in the family home. For sixty years. Out here on Ryan’s Road.

Maybe one longed to live beside the sea and the other dreamed of city life. But neither would let the other have the house! What a horrible story.

I made myself a cup of tea while Duncan paced in the study overhead. The uproar had broken his train of thought and he could not get back to work. Damn those two harpies.

I took a basket of washing to hang out. I had started our country life with plastic pegs, in the usual bright colours. Then the blue ones started to disappear. Something snapped them off the line, leaving my clothes to blow about in the dirt. Was this a peculiar kind of rural kink? Did it give some one a thrill—to take a woman’s clothes off the line and steal the pegs?

Then, one morning, I saw the thief. A beautiful glossy blue-black bird! When I found him in the illustrated guide, all was explained. He was a satin bower-bird, and somewhere, in the forest behind our land, he had a mound. There, according to the book, he spread pretty things, to attract a lady bower-bird. Blue was his favourite colour, and after his struggle to pull them off the line, I hope she liked those special ornaments!

I did not grudge a courting bird the pegs, but, when it breaks, plastic can make sharp splinters that could hurt a feathered Romeo. The bird would be safer with treasure he usually found in the bush. After our first mistake, we had learned to be careful of helping wild life.

We loved the birds, and when we first moved in, I scattered handfuls of grain every day, to encourage them. A couple of white cockatoos found the food and told their friends, the flock got larger and noisier, and our neighbours complained. We ignored Susannah’s invective and Annette’s whine, but when the sisters took their objection into town, a red-faced ranger came to visit us. He explained about the balance of bush life. “Attract too many predator birds,” he said, “and we lose the small species.”

We stopped feeding the cockatoos, and after a couple of protesting afternoons the flock disappeared, as the birds looked elsewhere for an easy feed. Then Annette complained about the blackberries, which were choking the native bush when we bought the house. Duncan’s brother had helped us choose the place, and kept his promise to help us clean them out. With the blackberries were gone, Susannah objected to our woodpile. It was too close to her fence. She was sure it harboured snakes. Duncan moved the wood, but the sisters found more reasons to complain and we tried to ignore the two of them.

Neighbours. Just what we left the city to avoid. The original owner of our home and the sisters’ grandfather had been good friends, which is why the houses were so close, both fronting Riley’s Road. When the sisters were not squabbling, they could lean on their fence and moan at us.

Back inside, I had barely settled to my cup of tea when there was a loud cawing, and the rattle of a beak against flywire. I opened the screen and Jamieson, the crow, hopped in. When he first appeared we guessed, from confident way he came into the house, that he had been hand-raised. Somebody rescued a fledgling, then, as soon as it could fly, very correctly, set it free. Jamieson, now definitely a wild bird, still liked an occasional treat from a human fridge. He was the exception to our “don’t feed” rule.

Lately he had found a mate. Another crow—Duncan called her Jemima—who joined him in our tall gum tree. I hoped they were making a nest.

The tree gave our neighbours another excuse to complain. “It’ll be down, as soon as there’s a storm,” Annette said “And it’s too close to the power line. It’s dangerous.”

Duncan did not agree. “There’s only one branch near the wire,” he said, “I’ll get Rod to lend a hand, and we’ll trim it up. No need to wreck the tree.”

I wished he would get on with the job. Annette had worked in Government offices—suppose she reported our gum? Men—coming trucks and chainsaws, and they would not be as careful as Duncan and Rod.

Susannah had gone inside. I could hear her tearing the house apart while Annette added her shrieks to the noise. Then Annette rushed outside, Susannah following, and waving a knife. Both women were screaming. Sixty years of frustration boiled into the fight. The noise was worse that a thousand cockatoos. Duncan gave up trying to work and joined me in the yard. Another figure came trotting up the road. Jonsey wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

It took both the men to hold Susannah back, while I dragged her sister away. “I haven’t got your bloody ring,” she screamed. “You can search the bloody house.”

That Susannah would certainly do. I looked at my washing, and had a mischievous thought. Blue sapphire ring. Blue plastic pegs. If that was the answer it served the harridans right.

We bought this piece of land so Duncan could write, and he needed a quiet place to work. I would see that he had it.

Maybe Annette had taken the blasted ring. Maybe a tramp crept in, unseen, and snatched it from the bathroom windowsill. Or maybe—I thought of the blue pegs—the ring was part of a bower-bird display. I took my theory next door.

That gave them something new to think about, and while they thought about the ways of bower-birds, Duncan could work on his next book. He seemed to be getting the rhythm of a tale and, as usual when things are going well, he stayed up all night.

For once, I joined him for a late coffee and I could not sleep. There was noise next door. What were the women doing at this hour? I shoved on a pair of boots and stumbled out. If they were going to make a row at night I would complain. If I wanted to talk to the woman I was too late. It was Annette, heading down Riley’s Road in the old truck. Where could she be going at this hour? She turned off the road and onto a forestry track. The one that had been closed two months ago. Ten minutes later Susannah was in the yard, and starting the car. Was she following Annette?

They came back together, just before sunrise. Call me nosey if you like—but I was curious. I crept up to the fence, to their window, and listened. They shared my suspicion of the bower-bird, and Annette had crept out, while her sister was asleep, to find the mound. Susannah heard the truck and followed her. I could not believe my ears. To hunt for a bower-bird’s mound among the trees! In the dark! As if she had a chance of finding it.

The sisters must have realised how hopeless it was. Each trying to trick the other. Searching at night. I heard them make a pact. They would go to the forest together, in daylight and search until they found the ring. And when they retrieved the sapphire? They would have to share the ring.

The next day brought a monumental storm that tore a branch off our beloved gum. If the sisters had not been obsessed by their hunt, they could have made a genuine complaint. The tree was dangerous. A lump of timber had fallen across the fence, which would have to be fixed. But first we had to deal with the tree. Jamieson was flying around, cawing his distress, as if he expected us to save his home.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Duncan said, phoning his brother for help. Rod came with ladders and chainsaw and they got to work. It took a couple of days but we ended up with a smaller—and healthier—gum tree.

“You’ll never guess what we found in Jamieson’s nest?” Duncan told me over a celebratory drink, “Something blue.”


He nodded. “Looks like there’s more than one kind of bird thief.”

“Will you tell the sisters?”

“And let them wreck our tree. No way. Let Jamieson keep the ring. Besides,” he grinned, “the hunt is keeping the neighbours out of our hair.”

He waved at the window. It was getting dark, and, next door, the old truck in pulled, bringing the sisters home. We watched them walking, together, into the house.


Robin Hillard has lived in three Australian states as well as England and Canada. She has chosen to live in Toowoomba which is only slightly larger than a city ought to be. E-mail: robinhillard[at]

Winter’s Ghost

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard

The Kellys lived in the house at the end of the street, that Jamie and I called “the last house in town,” to remind ourselves that we were stuck in the bush. The paved road stopped after the Kellys’ house, but we had to drive on, over a bumpy dirt track. Every time we passed the Kellys’ place, with its lawn and swimming pool, I wished we could stop there.

All we had was a weatherboard cottage with peeling paint. When Mum saw it she burst into tears, but George told her it was cheap. “We won’t be here for long,” he said. At first, as we reached the end of the street, he would wave at the Kellys’ house: “That’ll be us one day.”

By December the promises had stopped, and we were sweating through the Australian summer, still stuck in the bush with the dust and the flies. The Kellys’ house seemed like the beginning of civilization when we drove into town, and the end of everything on the way home, but if George said anything at all, it was a reminder not to get involved with “nosy neighbours.”

I did not like Australia and I did not like George.

We had known him back in London. When Dad disappeared he moved in with Mum, and the next thing we knew he was dragging us out here. “The sun always shines in Ozzie-land,” he said. “You’ll get a bit of colour in your cheeks.”

But we arrived in August, winter on this side of the world, and whatever George might have said about the weather, the Gippsland winter was cold.

He just laughed at our grizzles and told Jamie to toughen up. When my brother started to cough, Mum went to Vinnies and got him a jacket and bought a couple of sweaters for me. Vinnies. St. Vincent de Paul. They sell secondhand clothes for charity and George was so tight that Mum did all her shopping there: clothes, furniture, and even our school uniforms.

“Gotta be careful of the dosh,” George said, when she complained. We even had ratty old secondhand beds with stained mattresses.

Now, in the summer heat, he sat huddled on the veranda looking silly in his thick coat. He said he was cold. In December! In Australia!

“I bet it’s a ghost,” Jamie whispered, “rubbing fingers up his spine.”

The ghost of London’s winter, chasing him across the world!

“The ghost of all the nasty things he’s done,” I whispered back.

Jamie giggled, but I pressed my hand against his mouth in case George heard. We didn’t want to make him mad.

I pulled my brother inside. If George was in one of his moods we’d better keep out of the way. The sitting room was the coolest place in the house, so I turned on the fan and sprawled out on the floor. We were almost comfortable till George stormed in and switched off the fan. “It’s like a bloody freezer here!”

I thought of a freezer. A big one, like the Kellys had. Soon after we arrived, Di Kelly invited me to her place after school; she went to this huge freezer and pulled out two ice creams with the kind of wrappings they have in the shop. George was really mad when I got home, and told me to keep away from “that toffee-nosed town crowd,” so I never went to the Kellys’ house again, but as I sweated under our tin roof I wished I could jump into their pool.

George was still going on about the cold.

“You better toughen up,” Jamie said, giggling. The stupid kid. George fetched him such a swipe he ended up on the floor, screaming.

George would have hit him again, but Mum burst out of the bedroom and grabbed his arm. “The neighbours!”

That was stupid too. There was no one closer than the Kellys’ house.

It stopped George though. Which was something to remember. In Australia he was scared of the neighbours, and maybe when he hit us we should yell real loud. Jamie had the sense to scuttle outside, I wanted to follow, but with George between me and the door I had to stay where I was. And hope he would not notice me.

He headed for the bedroom, but was out again before I could move.

“What the flakin’ hell is this?” he was waving a receipt. It must have fallen from Mum’s bag. “Five hundred dollars for a flakin’ dress! You stupid cow!”

“I didn’t think y-you’d mind”

“Of course I flakin’ mind. That’s why we’re stuck in this flakin’ place—your idiot husband flashed his money around. You know what happened to him.”

Did she? Did Mum know why Dad left? We were used to him going away, but usually after a policeman came to the house. This time he just disappeared.

Mum muttered something that made George really mad. He dragged her into the bedroom, threw her down on the floor and started dragging clothes out of all the drawers.

Mum was crying and he slammed the window down. “D’you want the whole town listening in?”

She shut up.

Then he seemed to calm down. He was talking slowly, with his posh voice. “I am a junior sales manager of Argyle Electrics, and we live on my wages. That’s all the money we’ve got. And you want to swan about a flash dress? How much more did you spend? Eh?”

He shook her and, when she did not speak, answered for her in a high squeaky voice. “Just going into town, George. Just a little shopping, George.” Then, as his own horrible self, “What’s wrong with the dresses you’ve got? Your old clothes not good enough eh?” There was a thump as he knocked her onto the floor. “I’ve had told you a hundred times to keep your head down. Just like I told your Roger. You stupid bitch.”

He stormed out and headed back to the veranda where he huddled in a patch of sun.

I turned on the fan, and then went into the bedroom where Mum was still on the floor. Crying.

“What did happen to Dad?”

“Shh.” She whispered. Acting really scared. “Roger made George mad. He was so stupid.”

“I bet it was the money.” I was whispering too. I remembered how Dad had come home with a lot of new stuff, and Mum had tried to get it out of sight. I don’t know what it had to do with George, but when Mum saw him coming she sent me to Gran’s place with Jamie. When we came back Dad was gone.

Mum was burning hot from crying so I opened the window to get a bit of breeze.

I could hear music coming down the track; the Kellys must be having a party. Maybe later they would light the barbecue. That’s what Australians do when they have visitors, everyone sits on the lawn and they do their cooking outside. Last time they had what Mum called a “spit,” and roasted half a sheep. There was a bit of a breeze and, like the music this afternoon, the smell of their dinner came right down the track. It made George mad. He did not mind a bit of steak himself, but he said the smell of burning made him sick.

This time I could not smell a barbecue but George clumped inside, complaining, and slammed the front door shut. “Doesn’t anyone use their kitchen in this flakin’ place?”

Mum’s eyes were red from crying and she turned her face away, but George did not notice.

“It’s so flakin’ cold,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the ghost of last winter.” Mum’s window opens onto the veranda and she must have heard us talking about ghosts, but I wished she would shut up. She would only make George mad.

“You flakin’ stupid cow,” he said, and I thought he was going to hit her again. “That’s a flakin’ stupid thing to say.” Then, to me, “I don’t know why I brought you lot along. I thought your Mum had class, but look at her.”

That wasn’t fair. Mum didn’t have money for clothes, or make up, or for getting her hair done, so how could she look like the girls in the shop, the ones who worked with George? Was that why she wanted a new dress?

As suddenly as it started, George’s shivering stopped, and he was sweating like everyone else, and cursing the heat.

I thought about one of the shop girls. Beverly. The one George said had class. Was she the reason he got mad at Mum?

When we landed in Melbourne he was using his nice voice.

“Just hold off a little, luv,” he begged at first, when she wanted to buy us some clothes. “Let things settle down. Then we’ll take our loot and find somewhere nice. I promise.”

“Loot.” That always made trouble for Dad. It was never enough to get us “somewhere nice” and it always brought the police around. I hoped George had his loot with him, and that the Australian police would drive down the track, stop outside our gate and come bursting in to look for it. Then they would take George away.

It was not much good wishing. George was always reminding Mum how much it cost to bring us to Australia “with all the flakin’ papers.” There would not be much loot left for the police to find.

He was shivering again, and from the way he talked you’d think it was Mum’s fault. Only decent thing about the move, he said, was the climate. Missing the flakin’ cold—and here it was: “Like the ghost of flakin’ winter.”

There, he said it himself. Maybe it was a ghost, a bit of London winter coming to get him—for whatever he did before we came away.

Maybe it’s Dad’s ghost. I pushed that thought down quickly, in case he read my mind.

In December even the nights were hot, and I woke in a puddle of sweat. Someone was screaming. George.

I thought he was fighting with Mum, till I heard him shout at Dad. “Roger, y’ flaking idiot—do y’ want to bring the police around?” Then, as if he got an answer from the empty room: “Suppose the money’s marked? Did y’ think about that?” and talking more softly: “O.K. old chap, come on. Just a little drive, eh.” Yelling again: “Y’ want me to blast y’ away, y’ flakehead. Y’ll flakin’ well come.”

Jamie was awake. I climbed into his bed and held him tight, so he would not make any noise.

We heard George getting up, still yelling about a flakin’ burning car, and watched through the window as he rushed down the track. Mum went after him.

Jamie and I followed them.

George headed for the town screaming about “flakin’ Roger—flakin’ burning.”

He got as far as the Kellys’ place. Mr. Kelly came out and stood in front of him. He said something quietly, took George’s arm and walked him home. Then he talked to Mum, who pretended she had just got out of bed. Jamie and I kept out of sight.

I didn’t know want to face the kids at school. Everyone thought George was our Dad, and here he was yelling in the street like a drunk with the horrors.

But Di Kelly didn’t laugh at me, and she didn’t crawl around, pretend friendly, like people do when they smell a good story. I don’t think she told the others, because no one stared at me or acted strange. It was as if nothing had happened the night before.

But when I got home I saw the Kellys’ car, and as I went inside I heard Mrs. Kelly talking about a thing she called AA. Alcoholics Anonymous. “It made such a difference to Jack.” Jack? Was that Mr. Kelly?

I could not see George joining it, this “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I wished Mrs. Kelly would go away—before he came back. He might not yell at her, but he would be mad at Mum. He’d say she was getting mixed up with the neighbours. Which he thought was the worst thing we could do. Even worse than buying new clothes.

“You don’t want them nosing around,” he said once, as we passed the Kellys’ house.

Mum must have been feeling perky because she spoke up, and said she had nothing to hide. “It’s not as if I robbed a bank.”

That was the first time he hit her. He gave a sideways swipe and we nearly crashed into a tree.

“It isn’t the drink,” Mum was saying now, as I pulled Jamie away from the house.

We knew it wasn’t the drink. There was something wrong with George’s head, something that made him go freezing cold on a hot day, and sent him screaming down the track, yelling at Dad.

Maybe it was a ghost. The ghost of a London winter, chasing him across the world.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie said suddenly. “Dad’s dead in London and we’re here. We’re going to be here forever and ever.” He started to cry. “I bet George killed Dad. I bet he burned Dad in the car. That’s what he was yelling about.”

It made sense. Too much sense. I had to get Jamie away before George came back.

We ran down the track to where the town begins. To the house at the end of the street. The Kellys’ house.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie shouted as we burst through the open front door. Mr. Kelly must have thought we meant George because he grabbed his car keys and rushed out. But Mrs. Kelly had the car.

“She’s at our place,” I said, trying to pull him down the track. “And George is going to be mad.”

“George killed our Dad,” Jamie was yelling and crying as he tugged at Mr. Kelly’s other hand.

That was when George came by, in our old car. He must have seen us with Mr. Kelly but he didn’t stop. He headed down the track in a cloud of dust with Mr. Kelly rushing after him.

“Oh. Oh. Oh.” Jamie screamed the number he had learned at school. Call 000 to get the Australian police. Our class had learned it too, but I never thought I would make an emergency call. Maybe, if I used the Kellys’ phone, George wouldn’t know it was me.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly the police came, with flashing lights and sirens, right past the Kellys’ place and down the track.

By the time we got back to our house, the police were outside with a megaphone, and George was screaming through the window. He had an arm around Mum and was yelling about a knife. We could hear Mr. Kelly’s deep voice, telling everybody to keep calm.

One of the police kept George talking while the others rushed through the front door. Then someone grabbed him from behind and we couldn’t see anything till they came outside, two policemen holding George, and Mr. Kelly following with his wife and Mum.

I don’t think they found any loot, but the police wanted to know how Dad disappeared and they gave Mum something called “witness protection” which meant she had to fly back to London and go to court.

That is why Jamie and I are still in Australia, staying with the Kellys until Mum comes back. Now, after we’ve been into town, we can stop at the house at the end of the street. And every afternoon, as we jump into the pool, I think of George shivering on the hottest days, and the ghost of a London winter that followed him across the world.


E-mail: robinhillard[at]


Best of the Boards
Robin Hillard

In her article on grammar, Beaver says that ‘anymore’ does not mean ‘nowadays’, so her friend should not have said, “Anymore I shop at the Pottery Barn.”

That made me think of one particular seaside holiday, and a child who made the same grammatical mistake.


“Anymore I can swim,” Danny said when we met on the beach, “and anymore I got a Batman shirt.”

I was not interested in talking to Danny; he was only a little kid. I went on making a sand tower, and when he could not get my attention he wandered off.

Our parents had rented a holiday house, and Danny’s mother lived next door. There were only the two of them and I wondered where his father had gone. Mum told me Mr. Chandler was away.

“Put away,” said Dad.

As I was going outside I heard Mum talking about “an unfortunate woman,” because someone called he would soon be “getting out.”

“They should have thrown away the key,” Dad growled.

I was not interested in grown-up conversation, and once we were I home forgot about the little boy.

Then, when it was nearly time for the next holiday, I saw him again. He had come to our school, and was in the babies’ class. The teachers called him “Ann”, and I might not have known him, in his pink dress if I had not heard his shrill little voice: “Anymore my Dad has a car.” And, in answer to a question, “Anymore we live here now.”

I only knew one child who talked like that, but when I called him he started to cry, and ran behind the shed. I did not bother to chase him. Who wanted to play with the babies? Not me.

I wanted to be with the big boys, Peter’s friends, but my brother always sent me away. “You’re too small,” he said. “And girls can’t play football.”

But things were different now. As soon as I saw Danny wearing his pink dress I knew what I was going to do. If Danny Chandler could turn into a girl, with pretty clothes, why shouldn’t I be a boy?

I did not make the change at once, because I was a fairy in our class play, and boys could only be trees, but I decided that after the concert I would play football. I was too excited to keep my plan to myself.

“Soon I’m going to be a boy,” I said at breakfast time, “so you’ll have to let me play with you.”

Peter spluttered into his milk. “Mum, Jandy’s going to turn into a boy, so she can play football. Jandy thinks she’s going to be a boy.”

He went on and on until I started to cry.

“I can be a boy,” I insisted. “Danny Chandler was a boy last year and now he’s a girl. I am so going to be a boy.”

“It’s very sad about Daniel,” Mum said. Then she went on with some silly stuff, talking as if Danny disappeared. As if he was lost. “I’m sure he’ll be all right,” she added, in the voice she uses when she’s not telling the truth.

“Of course he’s all right,” I was cross. All this fuss about a little kid, when I wanted to talk about me. “Danny’s here. At school. He’s in the babies’ class. And he’s a girl.” That was the important thing. “He has a pretty pink dress. And he cries a lot.”

Mum told me not to be silly, but Dad wanted to know about the little girl. “What makes you think she’s Dan?”

“He just is. ‘Anymore my Dad’s got a car’ and ‘Anymore I live here now.'” I copied Danny’s voice, running the words together like he did.

Dad said something quietly to Mum, and they sent me out to wait for the school bus.

My friend Maryanne had a new Barbie doll, so I did not think about Danny/Ann again, till, right in the middle of spelling, Dad came into the class, with a policeman and a nurse, both in their uniforms. They took me into the office and Dad made me tell them all about Danny.

“You should check it out,” he said, before sending me back to my room.

My desk was by the window, so I saw Danny with the nurse, getting into the policeman’s car. He did not come back to school again.

That night we had my favourite pudding, ice cream, and chocolate cake, and Mum kept saying how clever I was. She used a lot of words I did not understand—“kidnapping” and “custody”—so I had more pudding and let them to talk.

Then Peter wanted show me off to his friends. “She’s a real little policeman,” he said. But Maryanne was coming to Saturday lunch and I did not have time to play with the big boys.


Robin Hillard has taught in Australia, England, and Canada. She has published a book of poetry and had stories and poems published in a number of print magazines and ezines. She now lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. E-mail: robinhillard[at]

In The Andersen’s Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard

It was always there, the memory covered, most of the time, by daily trivia. Then my brother came to stay with us.

“Did you ever wonder what happened to Lyle?” he asked that first evening, as we swapped stories of our childhood.

I felt my face burning and an iron band tightened around my chest as I struggled to breathe, symptoms my mother called my allergy. “Even the smell of tomatoes brings it on,” she said, but she did not know about Lyle.

Bill was still talking. “Bit of a mystery at the time,” he said, “the way the fellow disappeared.”

It happened when I was eight, and Billy four.

Dad’s mother had cancer and when our parents had to go to her, they left us with their friends, the Andersens. The Andersens lived on the edge of town with a large garden, a huge tin shed that was Mr Andersen’s castle, and an enclosure known as “the chook yard,” where a big black rooster bullied his harem of hens.

Mr Andersen had retired but he was always busy, working in his garden or doing odd jobs for neighbours. Sometimes they paid him, but mostly it was “a favour for the dear old girl” or “a bit of pruning for a poor old chap.” Although he did not get much money, he often came home with car full of junk that someone was going to throw out. “It might come in useful,” he would say. “I’ll put it in the shed.”

Billy and I loved the shed. We never knew what we might find as we poked around: pieces of old furniture, bottles half-full of strange liquids, and rusty tins with faded, unreadable labels.

The shed was not my favourite garden place. That honour was reserved for an old mulberry tree, with branches that arched to the ground, making a little, hidden house that I claimed as my own. When Billy followed me I pushed him out.

Those first weeks were heaven. Mrs Andersen, who had no children of her own, treated us like small adults, and Mr Andersen spoiled us both. Then Lyle moved in.

He was there one afternoon when I came home from school, leaning against the kitchen wall and watching Mrs Andersen.

“You always were a good cook, Phyll,” he said, grabbing a handful of peas. Mrs Anderson frowned, and pulled the bowl away.

“Hey, who’s this?” he asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you a pretty one?”

Mrs Andersen told me sharply to “get changed now, and go outside.” She sounded angry. She had never sent me out of the kitchen before, especially not without my glass of milk, but I did not argue. As I changed out of my school clothes I heard her telling the man to “watch yourself, Lyle.”

Lyle would have followed me outside, but Mrs Anderson called me back for my milk, and as I filled my glass she stood between the visitor and me.

“You won’t be staying long,” she said to him, but he laughed again.

“I’m sure big brother will give me a bed, after all we’ve done together.”

“Sid’s not like that any more.” She banged the lid on the saucepan and might have said something else, but Mr Andersen walked in.

He frowned when he saw Lyle, but when his brother talked about “old times,” and something he “would not want to have to tell,” Mrs Andersen spoke up. “I suppose you can stay for a couple of days,” she said, crunching up her face like somebody taking nasty medicine.

So Lyle stayed, and I did not like him at all. He called me “little girl,” and was forever trying to stroke my cheek. Mrs Andersen did not like him either, and always seemed to know when he had me cornered.

“Betsy— I need you.”

“Don’t go,” he would whisper—grabbing my arm with his sweaty hand.

I would yell an answer, as loudly as I could, ready to peel potatoes or help make up a bed, anything to get away from Lyle.

Then he disappeared.

It was a Saturday morning. Mrs Anderson had taken the car into town, Mr Anderson was working in the garden, and Lyle was dawdling over his breakfast. I did not want to stay in the house so I took a book and Jessica Jane, my favourite doll, and headed for my own safe place—under the mulberry tree.

There I was, sharing an adventure with the Famous Five when there was a heavy breathing over me. I looked up to see, looming though the branches, Lyle’s face.

“You look very cosy, little girl. Mind if I join you?” I did mind, very much, but what could I say? He came very close and I tried to wriggle away.

“Hey, sit down lass—don’t be such a hurry there.”

He grabbed my arm, and held me down, against the trunk so I could not move.

Something tinkled on the lawn outside, Billy’s tricycle bell.

I screamed for him to come, and could hear the wheels approaching then moving away. Poor Billy! “You must never, never come in here.” I had said, when I claimed my special place, now I was calling him. What could a four year old do?

“Ssh— we don’t want the little man here.”

“Billy!” I choked on the shriek as a big, dirty hand went over my mouth and I could not breathe.

There was a rustle in the branches. It was not Billy who answered my scream, but Mr Andersen.

“Go inside Betsy,” he said sharply, pulling Lyle out of the way. I scrambled past them and ran up to the house where I rushed into my room and slammed the door. I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed.

When Mrs Andersen called me out for lunch I was very relieved that Lyle was not there. I must have looked awful, but no one asked any questions, and when I choked over my food Mrs Anderson gave me a hug and took the plate away.

I went back to my room and wished I could cuddle my doll, but she was still under the mulberry tree and I knew I could never go back, not even for my beloved Jessica Jane.

There was a gentle knock on the door and a quiet, “Betsy girl!”

It was Mr Andersen. He had collected both my book and doll, and as he gave them to me I remembered how he had come earlier, just when I needed him most, and suddenly I felt safe again. I snuggled contentedly into my bed and lost myself in Enid Blyton’s world.

Mr Andersen worked all afternoon, in the garden under my window. “We must get those tomatoes planted,” he said to his wife, and I heard her murmur agreement before she went inside.

By the end of the day he had made a trench, a little longer and wider than my bed, and he must have got up early the next day, because, before I had my breakfast he had the hole filled in, with good, soft garden soil.

But where was Lyle?

He did not come back to the house. For a couple of days I expected him, and shivered whenever a door slammed, or a branch rubbed against the window but when he did not appear by the end of the week, I began to trust Mrs Andersen when she said: “That Lyle’s gone for good this time.”

Then the policemen came in their big car. There were two of them, standing at the front door asking for Lyle, and they did not sound friendly.

Mr Andersen told them his brother had moved—no, he did not know where—and yes, he would let them know if the man came back.

The policemen did not believe him, they kept repeating the same questions, and one of them took Mrs Andersen outside, as if he thought she had something different to say. They did not look at the tomato plants standing, like a rank of guards, in the new garden bed.

“Your brother will certainly not come back,” Mrs Andersen said again, as the police car drove away. “Good riddance to him.” How could she be so sure when even the policemen thought he would turn up?

“Better water those tomatoes, eh love?” Mr Andersen said grinning, and I looked at the oblong mound of earth.

Our grandmother died, our parents returned, and Billy and I went home. I tried very hard to forget about Lyle, but sometimes, in my nightmares, I was back in the Andersen’s garden, with great hands reaching up, out of the dirt, to grab me, and, when I woke up, I stuffed the blanket into my mouth to smother my screams. And I developed allergies; as my mother said: “just the smell of a tomato can make Betsy ill.”

Now, as my brother talked, the memories came back. “Quite a mystery man, our Lyle,” he said, “I always thought he’d met a sticky end.” I tried to steady myself as the room swayed around me, Bill’s words pushing into my head. “But it seems he was conning some old girl—got his hands on her money and took off. I met her son. He said Old Andersen followed it up—and made good the loss. He was a corker bloke, Old Andersen.”

He certainly was. The room stopped spinning, my breath came easily, and as I felt the cool air on my face I knew that if I had a dish of juicy red tomatoes I could eat them all.


E-mail: robinhillard[at]