My last short story was all about the hideous Aunt Mable; a wretched old woman who after having not been seen for seventy years suddenly turns up on the day after the start of the Second World War. But then what happens? The previous story ended with her seven nephews (Edward, Seamus, Arthur (narrating,) Fletcher,
Erasmus Geoffrey, Tiberius and Earnest) determined to send her packing. As they are about to find out, it isn’t going to be easy, not when Mable is firmly setting her feet under the table…
AUNT MABLE TAKES OVER
Edward drafted our letter to Father in super quick time and though we all attempted contributions these were ignored in favour of what Edward thought should be written. We all signed it. Ti and Earnest’s signatures were only squiggles but Father would know that it was them. For Fletch, whom we could hear being cut to ribbons as we finished writing, and for Seb, I was required to perform a small act of forgery. Forgery was something which I was growing to be quite skilled in and I prided myself upon my talent. Those two particular signatures were par-excellence!
The letter sealed, Seamus and I were sent to post it. Mrs Violent was watching out of her cottage window and as we hurried by she came out to accost us.
‘Where are you boys going?’ she demanded harshly. She already knew the answer, it seemed. ‘If you’re writing to your father you needn’t waste the time. If that witch is determined to lodge herself in the castle for the remainder of the war then I doubt that even he could move her.’
‘He might be able to do something about her at least,’ Seamus persuaded.
‘He might cut her down to size,’ I added. Mrs Violent thought.
‘Perhaps… He will try, I know that much. But there’s no need for you boys to write to him. I shall do it myself. He will be more inclined to believe me. Give me the letter.’ Seamus kept it in his sweaty grasp. ‘Come on… Hand it…’ Reluctantly he passed over the envelope and Mrs. Violent wasted no time in ripping it open to examine the contents. ‘Edward’s handwriting, naturally,’ she sighed. She folded the letter and then promptly clipped my ear.
‘What was that for?’ I asked, offended.
‘For forging Seb’s signature. Now back up to the castle the pair of you.’ She returned to her cottage and Seamus and I, seething with resentment, returned to the castle.
The witch had by now taken hold of Edward and was marching him around the ground floor, pointing at things unfamiliar and demanding to know how they had come to be and why they were there. If she didn’t like what it was she demanded its removal. As Seamus and I came in through the main door she marched towards us with a painting that was as big as she was.
‘Take this and burn it,’ she ordered, thrusting it at me. I nearly went right over backwards with the force and the weight of the painting. I looked at it for the first time and gasped. I could not burn that painting, not least because I liked it.
‘But that’s Tywyllwch,’ I jabbered. ‘Granny painted that…’
‘Did she indeed? Well it isn’t a very good painting. Even if the sitter wasn’t some kind of…’ She examined the painting, trying to find the right word. ‘Well I don’t know what he is but I don’t like him. He scares me. Burn him.’ I rather wished at that point that somebody would burn her instead, like they used to do to witches in olden times. I would have gladly lit the pyre myself.
She walked away but only to one of the walls of the hall, Edward hurrying behind her.
‘Who is this?’ Mable asked of a painting. ‘Is this your grandmother?’
‘No. That’s Mother,’ Edward answered sourly.
‘Oh yes. I see now that the dress is too modern. Daughter of the last Count Nuneaton wasn’t she?’
‘Father doesn’t allow us to talk about that side of the family,’ Seamus interjected. Mable popped her eyes at him.
‘Why on earth not? If it were me I’d be quite proud to have married the daughter of a count, even a minor one like Nuneaton.’
‘Father says he wasn’t a very nice man. He didn’t… erm… approve of us.’
‘That is no reason not to speak of him. If we went around not speaking of anyone who disapproved of this family we wouldn’t speak of anyone at all, including ourselves.’ She had a long think to herself and then tapped the painting with her cane. ‘I want this painting placed elsewhere. I don’t think I could abide looking at the silly woman every time I came down to breakfast.’
‘SILLY?’ Edward cried with distress. ‘MY MOTHER WAS IN NO WAY SILLY!’ His legs were taken out from under him by way of Mable’s cane.
‘She was very silly and you boys are living proof of it. There are seven of you… SEVEN! Wanting one or two children I can perhaps understand… I never wanted any myself but seven? Only the divil knows what she was thinking. Your father must be even madder for allowing the charade to go on.’
‘They wanted a girl,’ I told her.
‘Want doesn’t come into it. With children you get what you are given and it is silly to keep trying until you get the one you want. If you do that you end up with seven boys.’ There was a pause in her speech as she watched Edward struggle to take the painting down from the wall. Seamus and I ended up helping him. ‘Still… I’d rather have seven boys than one girl any day of the week. Little girls are awful; all pigtails and screeching and tea parties in the drawing room. Ghastly things they are.’ As hard as it was to believe, she must have been one of those ghastly things once upon a time too. I could not help but imagine that as a little girl she was exactly the same wizened hag as she was then, only with a dolly and pigtails instead of a cane and carpet bag
‘Tell me, which is your grandmother?’ she looked around.
‘She’s in here, above the fireplace.’ Seamus guided her towards the main sitting room where an enormous portrait of Granny dominated. She was a fierce lady and the portrait looked to be alive with an ethereal glow. I always got the impression that she was watching me, was watching all of us. We were all scared of Granny for various reasons and even Mable looked to be afraid for she approached the painting with trepidation.
‘So, you are the lady my brother shocked society by marrying,’ she said to it. ‘I always knew he was a fool. A beauty might have been worth the scandal but not you my dear. Where is he anyway?’ She turned around and immediately saw him watching her from the drawing room across the hall, hanging above the fireplace there as his wife did in the sitting room. She marched right over to him and then prodded the portrait with the end of her cane. ‘Didn’t change much in your old age did you Max? You were still a humpty dumpty and probably just as unbearable too.’
The way Mable spoke to the portraits shocked all three of us for Granny and Grandpa were always treated with the utmost respect. If we said anything derogatory about them we would find ourselves sent to bed without supper, or worse depending on how bad what we had said had been. Seamus had once called Grandpa by a very bad name and none of us saw or heard from him for three days afterwards. By the time he was allowed to reappear the rest of us had begun to assume that Father had killed him. The only permissibly derogatory think that was allowed to be said about Grandpa, and then only by Father who always said it in an affectionate way, was that he was a jibbering nincompoop. Having read his memoirs I can well see why and I believe it myself. With Granny we needed no deterrent for we were too frightened to speak against her.
‘I want both of these portraits moved,’ Mable announced. ‘Put them in the library or outside it in the hallway if there isn’t room.’ We were flabbergasted.
‘No,’ Edward protested. ‘Granny can’t be moved.’ He dodged Mable’s cane.
‘Why not? Of course she can be moved. See to it at once.’
‘But Father says that if the portrait gets moved then she’ll come back and start haunting the castle.’
‘What pish and nonsense. There aren’t any such thing as ghosts so she can’t possibly come back and haunt the castle can she?’
‘From what Father has said of her I can *—* well imagine that she’d find a way.’ Seamus went down with a cane across the back of his head before he could finish speaking.
‘Mind your language boy. Those sorts of words may be acceptable to a slate miner but they are not befitting of a young gentleman. If I happen to catch you using such words again you’ll feel more than my cane on the back of your head. I’ll see to it that you spend the rest of your days as a eunuch. Now… REMOVE THAT PAINTING!’
We set to it and we might have been able to laugh through the struggle had we not been so frightened that Granny’s ghost would make an appearance at any moment. Whilst Edward and Seamus clung to the bottom of it I had to balance on the mantelpiece and unhook it and hold onto it whilst it was lowered to the ground. I nearly fell off a few times and Seamus came up with the idea that if I were to fall I should fall onto an armchair. He rolled one over to me. It was of no comfort for if I did fall I would either break it or bounce off into the fireplace.
The painting was lowered and on the ground and I was part way through climbing down when we were scared from out of our wits. In the hallway we heard an unearthly rattling and clanking. It was Granny come to tell us to put the painting back, we were certain. Mable, who had been watching our endeavours with a sour expression, was not so easily duped. She turned and strolled into the hall where Fletch was hiding on the staircase with some old dog chains in his hand. He had seen us trying to remove the painting and thought he would pretend to be Granny’s ghost. He laughed, thinking he was being funny, but Mable was quick to suppress any thoughts of that nature. She snatched the dog chains from him and cuffed him about the ear.
‘Go back to your room. Do not come out again until I say otherwise. Do I make myself clear?’ He nodded and shuffled back up the stairs. Mable came back to the sitting room where through our fear of Granny we had retreated to a corner. She clacked her cane on the floor several times. ‘Come along boys… There are more paintings I wish to see removed.’
For the remainder of that day, and I thought it was a terrible waste of a Saturday, Edward, Seamus and myself shuffled paintings around the castle. Mostly it was Seamus and myself for after we told him of what had happened with Mrs Violent Edward grew stroppy and snuck off to the village. He had gone, we later found out, in order to phone Father and inform him of our situation without being overheard. We were not to phone him unless it was the absolute direst of emergencies but since the situation was indeed quite dire he had decided that it was acceptable. Father could not be reached and Edward, after having asked for a message to be passed to him, came back with a sour expression on his face. One hour later a telegram arrived from Father that made him fume all the more.
DO NOT BE SO SILLY. THAT HAG IS MOST LIKELY DEAD. IF NOT DEAD THEN HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO TURN UP AT C.
It was Mable who caught the telegram and she cackled up and down the hallways for ten minutes before confronting Edward.
‘Oh dear… Looks like Daddy doesn’t believe you. Well never mind. He’ll get a nice surprise when he returns, won’t he?’ This infuriated Edward no end and I thought he might push Mable down the stairs. We would have all testified that he was provoked had he done so. Mable did not stay to hear his furious outburst. He swore in such a way that even Seamus was shocked by it.
She went away in order to exact her revenge for Ti’s earlier refusal to acknowledge her questions, namely by making good on her promise to take away his toys for the remainder of the war. Ti was not going to take this lightly and the moment she entered his room with a large wooden box he knew something was amiss. Without saying a word she began to scoop up all the toys she could find, not one of them was stored and all were littering the floor, and placed them in the box. Ti immediately started mewling and made a grab for what had already been put in the box. Mable kicked him away with her foot and continued with her task. She went for a toy soldier and Ti tried to get to it first but missed. There was a miniature wooden horse that rocked and when he went for it, this time, he got to it before Mable did. She did not play fair and snatched it from him, beating him about the ear. He cried and she gave him another cuff before throwing the horse onto the floor and breaking it.
‘That’s for not letting me have it. I’ll break something else if you continue with this charade.’ In tears, Ti went across the room and clung to his favourite teddy bear. The evil woman followed and tried to take it from him but he held onto it for dear life.
‘Boy… Give it to me,’ she growled. When he did not give she grabbed at the bear and kicked him hard in the legs. With a howl he relinquished the bear and then Mable did the most terrible thing, far worse than any beating. Edward and I had come to investigate the noises being made by Ti and we arrived in time to see Mable stroll to the window, open it and cast the bear out into the wild. It hung in the air a moment and then, a look of panic on its little brown face, it began to fall out of sight. Edward, already annoyed by the telegram, wasn’t going to stand for this.
‘YOU HORRIBLE OLD HAG,’ he shouted before leaping at Mable’s neck. I have every belief that he intended to kill her and he would have done so had she been any ordinary old lady. Mable, as Edward found out to his dismay, was stronger than most old ladies and she beat him away far too easily. She practically threw him out into the hall and then came after him with the cane. She hit him and hit him again and again until he rolled over and capitulated. Mable took a step back to allow him room to stand up and when he did so, before she could tell him that he would be further punished for attacking her, he had kicked her in the shin and stormed off. She went after him but he was faster and out of the front door before she was half way down the stairs.
She came back to Ti’s room where, in the meantime, he and I had hurriedly gathered as many of his toys as was possible and taken them into my own room for their safety.
‘What are you doing?’ she demanded of me. I had been caught in the act of corralling a herd of teddy bears who were worried of suffering the same fate as their companion.
‘Just helping, Aunt Mable,’ I tried to smile.
‘Well don’t. Get back to moving those paintings. Go on…’ I started to hurry away but she caught my collar with the hook of her cane.
‘Leave the bears!’ I put them on the floor by the door and slipped around it, lurking just out of sight. My intention was to grab them when her back was turned but my heart sank as I heard her cane tap towards the door and back again and then a soft thud as all the bears landed in the box.
Edward was not seen at supper that night and we wondered what might have happened to him. Mable could not have cared less and said that so long as the ‘little monster’ was not in the castle he could do as he wished. He didn’t show up until long gone midnight as it turned out. I was not sleeping for I was terrified that Mable might come and smother me in the night. All of a sudden I began to hear something hitting my window at regular intervals. I’d had Kestrels nesting there the previous summer and after I had started giving them scraps of bacon in a morning they began to tap on the window, waking me up and saying ‘Arthur, where’s our breakfast?’ This could not be a Kestrel for it was far too late at night and for another thing they had long flown away, perhaps found somewhere that served a better class of breakfast than yesterday’s leftover bacon. It could, I worried, be Granny’s ghost. She might be haunting me in revenge for helping to remove her painting from over the fireplace. Like a coward I took shelter under my covers. The irregular tapping on the window continued for some time and then suddenly stopped. I peeked out from the covers to see if it was safe. When there was no more tapping I breathed a sigh of relief.
Two minutes later I screamed as something attempted to smother me. It was only Seamus who silenced me by clamping a hand over my mouth.
‘Quiet… You’ll wake her up,’ he cajoled. ‘Listen, she’s locked the kitchen door and barred the front. We need to go down and let Edward in.’
‘Why? Why can’t you just go and let him in?’ He pulled my ears and failed to answer my question.
“Just get out of bed.” He left my side and went into the hall, checking to see if Mable might be lurking somewhere. When my slippers and dressing gown were on he beckoned me to follow him.
I hated the castle in the dark. Every creak and every noise was magnified and with no windows in the hallways the darkness was total. I could barely see Seamus apart from a podgy spot that was blacker than everything else around it. I felt that every painting was watching us, all my ancestors tutting and commenting that we should be in bed. Yes, of course we should have been, but it wasn’t their brother who was locked out was it? I’m sure in their youth they snuck about the castle after dark as well so it was rather hypocritical of them to tut at us, I thought. There was also Mable to factor into things. She might not have been asleep, might have been lurking anywhere or in any doorway and if she caught us, as well as doing something horrible, she would insist we left Edward outside. She would also strike us for being out of bed and I really didn’t want to be hit again.
After what must have been hours, but quite clearly wasn’t, we reached the back stairs and hurried down them two at a time. Being an old medieval staircase (though the stone steps had long been replaced by less treacherous wooden ones) it spiralled around and around and down and took us to the servant’s rooms on the lower ground floor. They went much deeper than that, down into the cellars and the undercastle but we could not go that far for there was a huge metal door in the way and only Father held a key for it. There was a room full of old weapons down there, the armoury we called it, and I so wished that I could reach it and come back up with seven weapons so that we might drive our enemy back over the walls.
The outside door was not far, just a short way down the corridor, and fortunately for us Mable had not padlocked it, merely turned the bolt. Edward came blustering in and locked the door behind him before pushing both Seamus and I into the kitchen. His hands were freezing and he was a light blue colour all over.
‘Why didn’t you come to the window?’ he scolded when the door was closed and the light turned on. I saw that there was a bulge in his shirt. ‘No matter. At least Seamus answered me.’
‘Where have you been? You’ve been gone for hours.’
‘I tried to get in touch with Father again. Still no answer so I passed on another message. I told him the old witch had been attacking us, that she’s had Granny moved and that she threw Ti’s teddy bear out of the window…’ He reached under his shirt and removed the bulge. It was none other than the aforementioned teddy bear. ‘It was a divil to find, I can tell you. I hope the little oaf appreciates what I’ve done for him.’
‘I managed to save some of the toys,’ I told him. ‘They’re under my bed and until this blows through they’ll have to stay there. The witch will take them away if she finds them.’
‘Good thinking Arthur. I wouldn’t trust her though. She might go snooping. We need to put them somewhere she wouldn’t think of looking. Father’s office perhaps?’
‘That’s three floors below. How are we going to get them down without her noticing?’ Edward sat down at the table and pondered.
‘I’ll think of a way. Leave it with me. Meantime…’ He slid the bear towards me. ‘Go and give this to Ti. He’ll appreciate it I’m sure. Then get to bed, both of you. If the witch finds you out then lord only knows what she’ll do.’
I took the bear, leaving Edward and Seamus to a brief discussion of their own, and hurried my way back up the spiral staircase. I carefully and discretely entered Ti’s room and found it unusually dark. The curtains had been drawn and I knew that Ti hated that. He liked to sleep with them open so that he could look out at the night sky and the stars as he drifted. He had fallen asleep without them but as I slipped them open, letting the room be flooded by moonlight, I saw that he had not gone easily. His cheeks were red and his eyes swollen by tears. He’d also spent most of the afternoon in tears and not even repeated threats from the witch would stop him. She gave up and left him to his own devices in the end.
I gently shook the sleeping form and he rolled over in confusion.
‘Shhh… Don’t make a sound,’ I whispered, putting my finger to my lips. I then produced the bear from behind my back and gave it to him. ‘Keep him hidden. Don’t let the old witch find him,’ I instructed. Ti pulled the bear close and nodded.
‘Thank you,’ he said in a small voice before snuggling back into his sheets, the bear to his chest.
On the return journey to my room I bumped into Seamus hurrying past and then Edward from the same direction. It took me a second or so but I soon heard what they were running from. I could hear the tapa-tapa-tapa of a cane banging against the main staircase, the witch coming to see that we were all tucked up in our beds. I did not allow her to catch me but silently slipped into my room and under my sheets. I closed my eyes and prayed that she was not like Father who could somehow always tell when we were only pretending to sleep. She was not like Father, as it turned out, and I was soon asleep for real.
The next day brought with it a whole new indignity, church. We were all awoken at six in the morning by the sound of a gong being repeatedly struck in the hallway outside our rooms. Bleary eyed and confused we scrambled into our various dressing gowns and slippers and peered out to see what all the commotion was about. It was, as you might well guess, Mable. She was decked out in a prim but moth eaten traditional Welsh costume and was marching up and down and banging that gong as though her life depended on it.
‘Up… Up… All of you. Winguardium leviosa, as my old governess used to say!’
‘What the divil is going on?’ Fletch grouched. He found himself struck on his bottom by the hammer of the gong.
‘It is Sunday, that is what is going on young man. I want you all dressed and down for breakfast in ten minutes. Thank you.’ Seeing that we were all now awake she clacked off down the main staircase.
‘Who the *—* does she think she is?’ Seamus complained. ‘I’m going back to bed.’
We all did the same and were in for a rude awakening ten minutes later when our covers were pulled away and we were each struck by the hammer of the gong. It was not so harsh as the cane for the end was made of a soft rubber but it was still a painful thing to be struck with.
‘I said I wanted you dressed and down ten minutes ago. Now hurry, all of you, before your porridge grows cold.’
We all dressed in our usual clothes. Edward and Seamus dressed Earnest and Ti for they could not do it themselves whilst I had to sort Erasmus who had managed to somehow get everything on either backwards or upside down. When we all came tumbling into the dining room like a circus tent of clowns Mable was not in the least part impressed.
‘Whatever is the matter now?’ Edward scorned. Mable glared at him. She had not made mention of the previous day’s incident nor had she asked how he had managed to get back into the castle when both of the doors were sealed.
‘The matter is that it is Sunday and you are not dressed appropriately. How can you expect to attend church looking like an untidy band of ragamuffins? Whilst that is indeed what you all are you cannot attend church looking like one. Now go and dress properly.’
‘But we don’t go to church,’ I told her. I received a cuff around the ear for answering back.
‘Don’t go to church? How can you expect any sort of moral backbone without a religious grounding? This family should be setting an example to people hereabouts. How can they respect us if we have no devotion?’
Father, not being a man of God, did not attend church and so, therefore, neither did we. The nuns who came to give us our lessons touched on Christian teachings every once in a while but otherwise religion played no part in our lives. The only time we ever attended church was at Christmas for the carol service. That was mother’s doing. Like Father she was not religious but she liked to hear the carols and had insisted upon taking us all along with her. Since her death Father had become intent on continuing the tradition. Seb was the only member of our troop who attended church regularly but he outwardly hated it and Mrs Violent, knowing this, only insisted he attend every few weeks rather than every week as would have been usual. The whole idea of church was a horror to us, all those hymns and lectures and stuffy prayers. We had far better things to be doing with our Sunday mornings.
We did not protest for we were slowly coming to the realization that all protest was fruitless and so returned to our rooms. Once we had redressed and resolved the issues of Earnest, Ti and Erasmus we came back to the dining room to find our porridge cold. It was not very nice porridge to begin with. It was grainy, without flavour and overly salty. We did not want to eat it but Mable insisted. I was growing to truly despise this woman who had entered into our home and struck us and threw our toys out of the window and made us eat cold, yickety porridge.
Once done we were marched from the castle, in age order apart from Earnest and Ti who were pushed along in perambulators by myself and Seamus. Mable came along behind to make sure none of us tried to escape along the way, for she was certain that we would if we could. She was too right on that front. Passing onto the Ogwen road and seeing the Glyders opposite I longed to run and hide amongst the rocks and crags in a place where the witch could never reach me. She was so old that she’d never make it past the lower slopes so I wouldn’t have needed to go too high. I could have done it but I dared not.
As we processed to the church at Capel Curig people stopped and watched as though we were a kind of parade. They knew who we were for who else in the area had seven very similar looking boys?
‘Don’t they all look smart and handsome,’ the women would say.
‘They’ll grow up to be fine gentlemen just like their father, you can be sure of that,’ the men would remark. One man, Bryn Bryng who was the publican in the village, saw us and as we went by he darted to Edward and pressed something into his hand. It was another telegram from Father.
PLEASE STOP WITH THESE RIDICULOUS STORIES. I SHALL BECOME VERY CROSS IF YOU DO NOT. IF YOU MUST CONTACT ME PLEASE DO SO BY LETTER UNLESS IT IS AN ABSOLUTE EMERGENCY.
Edward fumed all the way to the church, all the way through the ominously dull service and then all the way back again.
Things were to get worse the next morning for Edward was told to pack his things. He was to catch the midday service from Bangor and return to school. The whole thing had been arranged without his knowledge the night before and there was no use in protesting for the school now expected him. This did not stop him for he railed something awful, a railing that brought him the makings of a black eye from the end of Mable’s cane. We should have expected it for had she not said on the day she arrived that Edward was to return to school? Nevertheless, for it to come so soon was a shock.
As the time for him to leave approached Edward had still not packed. He refused to go, stating that whilst Father was away on war work he was needed at home. Mable called it piffle and tummy rot and told him that he was returning to school whether he liked it or not. He went to Mrs Violent for assistance but he had no luck. She only said that he should go along for the moment and then when Father intervened and resolved this whole business he would be allowed to return to where he was needed. He came back unhappy and dragged myself and Seamus into his room whilst he packed.
‘Write to Father. I’ll do so from school too. Don’t telephone because he won’t answer. Tell him what is happening and that it must be sorted right away. Don’t let Mrs Violent catch you this time either.’
We said our goodbyes and Crusty drove him off to the railway station at Bangor. The only consolation, he told us before he got into the car, was that at least he would be away from the old hag and with luck he should never have to see her ugly face ever again. He gave us his sympathies and then he was gone.
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