If you haven’t read the previous Aunt Mable stories, and you really ought to think about it, (clue- They’re here) then this is the basic gist of what is going on: On the day the Second World War begins Mable Morfasson (one S is silent, remember that) comes shuffling out of the fog and back into the castle of Cythry, much to the annoyance of the boys who live there. With her feet well and truly under the table and with all attempts to convince their absent father of her presence, the six boys (Edward having been dispatched to boarding school) plus friend Seb tried to escape to London. They failed. Only now, after this incident, has their Father decided to return…
AUNT MABLE AND THE EVACUEES
By James Churchill
Things changed. To our eternal frustration those changes were not always for the better. Shortly after introducing themselves to one another Father and Aunt Mable began a very long and very civilised conversation over cups of tea. It was all dull and grown up and Fletcher fell asleep listening to them. I was tempted to join him. To our chagrin there was no shouting and no immediate ousting of our tormentor from the castle. There were strong words from both sides about what constituted acceptable discipline but there were never raised voices. There were sighs and groans when Mable told of our various misdemeanours and then Father broke our hearts when he confirmed that he would also have severely punished us for some of the things we had done. He would never have been so villainous as Mable in his punishments but in his agreement that such a thing was necessary we learned that there would never be any chance of his taking our side over hers.
He did, however, institute one change for the better during that conversation. As much as Mable wanted us all sent away to school Father was adamant that we should not be. Cythry, he argued, was one of the safest places in the country at that moment and that was a statement which it was impossible for Mable to disagree with. Tippsy would be allowed to stay on as governess but for our lessons, Father insisted, we should be taught by the nuns of Bethesda. This pleased us and aside from much reluctance and protest Mable agreed.
Tippsy was outraged. She demanded to know why, when in her words she was more than capable of giving us a solid education, we had to be taught by nuns. Father hesitated and took a long time to come up with an explanation. Even then it was not to Tippsy’s satisfaction.
They were not to be the same nuns who had previously taught us, however. Sister Mary Rhefrol, after being so rudely dismissed, refused to return or let any of her fellow Bethesdan nuns near the castle. This irritated Father and pleased both Mable and Tippsy. He immediately began scouting the area for another convent. He found one in Deiniolen that would send over a pair of Sisters three times a week, Sister Gladys Haddyn and Sister Eucalyptus Bronnau.
The lessons were an improvement on Tippsy’s autocratic regime but they were dull. Sister Gladys and Sister Eucalyptus, who were both in their sixties and without any sense of humour, had no interest in our education and made it clear that they were only there because Father was paying them a handsome sum to be so.
Once a week, on a Friday morning, I was to be allowed to walk across the mountains to visit Grandfer Llithrig, on the condition he taught me of mythology and folk matters. Father was unimpressed at first, speculating that such visits would not do me any good in the longer term, but after much persuasion he relented. Seamus chastised me for wanting to go back, saying that I was chasing fairies and nonsense. Edward joined in when he returned from school a few days before Christmas, the earliest they would allow him to leave, and he was much crueller. On the day after he returned he caught me reading a book of legends in the library and he was so up himself over it that he threw it into the lighted hearth. The fight that followed landed us both in our rooms, without supper, until the next morning.
Edward was supremely cheesed that Mable was allowed to stay and he spent most of Christmas arguing with Father about how the old bat ought to be flung out on her ear. Father’s point was that he couldn’t evict her even if he wanted to. It was all tied to the legal ownership of the castle. Although the castle was legally his Father only owned it through a trust system and under two conditions. The first was that he was not allowed to sell or dispose of the castle, so that upon his death he may pass it on to Edward or whoever happened to be the next living male heir. The second condition was that any family member, by birth or marriage to the third generation down, was allowed residence there for as long as and whenever they wished.
Edward was left seething but it wasn’t long before he was trying to expose her as a fraud. He failed, of course. There were things which Mable knew about the castle that even Father had been unaware of and these could only be explained by her being a family member. Some of these, such as a particular hiding space in the basement, she could not have discovered in the short time since she had arrived.
Father again left us in January and whilst Edward moped and schemed, increasingly desperate to find a way to be rid of Mable, Tippsy and now Sister Gladys and Sister Eucalyptus as well (who, despite being dull, were not offensive,) the rest of us settled down into waiting for the war to end. We believed that it would not be long. There were frequent fights, there were arguments and we were as wild as we had ever been but now Mable was no longer such a thorn. She was beginning to learn what Father had always known, that nothing could tame us and hard punishment would only ever cause us to rebel further. She still beat us from time to time and insisted on taking us to church every Sunday but that was only a minor burden in hindsight. When the weather was nice the walk to Capel Curig was even pleasant.
Tippsy continued to be a nuisance. She frequently found herself at odds with Mable on a great many things, things from household management to the need for extra staff.
‘My dear Mrs Mippsy,’ Mable said across her knitting one afternoon in early February. They had been debating for much of the morning. ‘I have tried to find decent staff for this rambling old heap but such people are in short supply. There are even less who want to come and work in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Then why can you not hire some of those slack jawed yokel villagers down below? They do little else besides drink from what I have seen.’
‘No, absolutely not,’ Mable snipped. ‘Mrs Fuller is up here often enough and she is one too many villagers already. I’ll not have any more.’
They were interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
‘Perhaps that is a worker come to volunteer,’ Tippsy slipped coldly.
‘I highly doubt it. It is more likely to be that old duffer Craigmuir. He’ll have come to get someone to sign off on the rates for this week I expect. Edward can do it.’
Whilst Mable went for the door Tippsy went to the stairs to call for Edward but he and the rest of us were already tumbling down them in a frantic rush.
‘Don’t open the *—* door,’ Edward cried, springing to his feet. Tippsy struck him for foul language.
‘Why on earth not?’
‘Because there are girls out there,’ Fletcher panicked. Mable, whose hand was already reaching for the door handle, froze.
‘Girls?’ she shuddered. ‘How many?’
‘I counted seven,’ Seb confessed. ‘Seven and a scary lady.’ It was Seb who had seen them coming up the drive. He had been watching for Nasty soldiers out of my bedroom window again and he had shrieked in horror when he caught sight of a lady in a brown overcoat and followed by the seven strange girls, all of whom carried suitcases, all coming towards the castle.
Mable was terrified by this latter piece of information.
‘Suitcases? How do you mean suitcases?’ The doorbell rang again.
‘As in brown boxes with handles, for carrying dresses in,’ Seamus grouched. Mable puffed herself up and huffed several times.
‘Well… There must be some mistake. They must have come to the wrong place… They’ll have been looking for Gwydir Castle I expect…’
‘They’ve come a bit far if they were,’ Edward tossed.
‘Please, don’t let them in,’ Erasmus begged. Mable again puffed herself up and huffed.
‘I’ll open the door only to tell them they’ve made a mistake,’ she declared, putting hand to the handle.
We boys all scarpered for various hiding spots around the entrance hall and peered out from behind them to see what was happening. Edward and Seamus took behind the door into the drawing room, Seb and Earnest took the sides of the stairs. Erasmus and I had the door to the kitchen, Fletcher tried to conceal himself behind the hat stand and Ti tried to get under Tippsy’s skirts until she booted him away and he had to settle for behind her, looking out through the gap in her legs.
Mable opened the door a crack and glanced around it warily. The beady eye of the scary lady who was accompanying the girls appeared on the other side.
‘Yes?’ Mable hissed, realising this was no mistake.
‘Oh *—*’ Erasmus cursed. We were all thinking the same thing and Fletcher also let out a terrified squeak from behind the hat stand.
‘I’m Mrs Felicity Clip-Clop, from the local war office…’
‘Did she just say her name was Felicity Clip-Clop?’ Edward whispered to Seamus, who was trying hard to stifle his laughter.
‘Yes? And what do you want?’ Mable snapped at her.
‘I’m here with the evacuees you agreed to take in.’ Mable opened the door to its fullest and took a good look at the seven girls who were nervously taking shelter behind the scary looking Clip-Clop.
‘Agreed to take in evacuees? I did no such thing,’ Mable announced in a very angry way. Clip-Clop pursed her lips and began to look through a paper she had on a clipboard.
‘Are you sure? I have it down here that you signed on for seven girls from Manchester…’ Mable prowled outside, over the threshold, and began to circle Mrs Clip Clop.
‘You are mistaken, madam. Nobody in this castle has agreed to such a thing.’
‘I don’t think I am mistaken… madam! The lady down the hill, Mrs Fuller, she asked to have a look at the girls before they came up here. She seemed to have been expecting them… She’s taken in one little girl herself…’ There was an angry howl from Seb and he burst out from behind the stairs, rolling up his sleeves and going for the door in a determined fashion. He had vanished down the drive before anybody could stop him. Evidently this was the first he had heard of Mrs Violent taking in a little girl and he was having none of it.
Clip-Clop stared after him and then turned back to Mable who had come to rest just over the threshold.
‘Mrs Fuller’s son I presume?’
‘Quite correct,’ Mable clipped. ‘I don’t know where Mrs Fuller got her information from but I most definitely was not expecting any evacuees. This is the first I have…’
Erasmus, taking inspiration from Seb’s march to war, pushed past Mable so as to make his own stand. He pulled himself up as tall as he could and put on his best, most adult attempt at a voice.
‘Mrs Flip-Flop, nobody in this castle was aware that these women were being brought here. Whoever agreed to them did not have the authority to do so. Good day madam.’ He marched back inside and slammed the door, ironically shutting Mable out as well. He turned around again when the door reopened and an unamused Mable glared at him with one raised eyebrow.
‘I shall deal with you later young man,’ she reprimanded. Erasmus huffed and went to sit down on the stairs with his arms folded.
‘You have a great many bedrooms here, yes?’ Clip-Clop pulled a pen from the pocket of her overcoat and tapped it against the clipboard.
‘I am not sure how many. There were eighteen in my youth but things have been moved around since then.’
‘And ten of those are currently in use, it says here?’
‘Quite… My nephew is currently away on war work but his rooms are kept ready for him.’
‘So you have eight bedrooms spare?’ Clip-Clop interrogated.
‘Perhaps. We may have less…’ She turned and stalked inside, heading for the hat stand. Clip-Clop weedled her way in through the door after her and the seven girls slithered to the threshold to have a nosey inside. One of them gave a sweet wave to Erasmus and he hissed at her like a cat. Clip-Clop and Tippsy gave each other curt nods but otherwise said nothing to each other.
‘Fletcher,’ Mable demanded of the hat stand. ‘How many bedrooms are in this castle.’
‘Ten,’ the hat stand lied.
‘See,’ Mable triumphed. ‘Only ten. There is no room for these girls.’
‘In a castle this size there must be some spare rooms. All the boys have their own room? Surely they could share?’
‘You do not know these boys, Mrs Clip-Clop. They are a wild bunch. Their father, though he has much to commend about himself, does not keep them on a very tight leash. I hate to think what they might get up to if they were made to share.’
‘Surely there are other rooms that can be made into bedrooms?’
Clip-Clop seemed determined to get those girls through the front door and lodged in our midst. I did not like it one drop. The fact that we were stuck with Aunt Mable and Tippsy was hard enough to stomach without throwing in these seven girls as well. With all that to deal with there would be no respite. At that we might as well throw in the towel and hand ourselves over to the Nasties. Either that or march on Berlin with the singular intention of smacking Hitler in the gooley and ending the war.
Aunt Mable by now was becoming cross. If this had been one of us she would have been taking her cane to our backsides but as this was a grown woman she was encountering she restrained her anger. This is the hypocrisy of the adult world. Most adults will never lay a finger on one another, never resort to violence of any kind even when provoked to the most extreme anger, as should be the way, but when it comes to children they will gladly exert their authority by way of their palm. I detest this sort of thinking. I detested it then and I detest it now and I detest those who use violence on children, the likes of Mable to use an example.
‘I’m afraid you have little choice but to provide the room for these girls, even if you have to change the dining room into a dormitory… You did agree to take them in after all.’
‘I say it again madam, I did no such thing!’ Mable tapped her cane against the floor, incensed.
‘I have it right here Miss Morfasson,’ Clip-Clop flashed her clipboard in Mable’s direction. Mable took it from her and read it with a squint.
‘That is not my writing,’ she huffed. ‘I don’t know who signed this document but it is not my hand. That is certainly my name but it is nowhere close to my signature or writing. ARTHUR!’ I scuttled out from the door to the kitchen whilst Mable waved the clipboard at me. ‘Boy. Do you know whose writing this is?’
I took the clipboard from her and looked over the paper on it, an official looking consent form for taking in refugees. It was signed and printed in Mable’s name but I knew that the handwriting was not hers. I knew because it was actually the one handwriting I had never been able to forge, though not through want of trying. My eyes boggled and I felt that a cruel betrayal had been done to us all. This was one million times worse than selling us out to the Nasties. I waved Edward over and showed him the clipboard. He turned purple.
‘THE BLASTED TURNCOAT… HE’S GONE TOO FAR,’ Edward cried, flying for the door with the clipboard still in his hand.
‘Excuse me young man… I believe that’s mine,’ Clip-Clop shouted when he was half way across the drive. The clipboard came flying back, alone, and landed on the doorstep. She picked it up and dusted it off.
‘Arthur… Whose handwriting is that? Your father’s?’ Mable interrogated. I nodded bitterly. Mable barred her teeth in anger. ‘I see… Well Mrs Clip-Clop, if that is indeed your name, as you have heard, that is not my signature. My nephew has signed that form in my name. He is not here. I will therefore not accept any evacuees into this castle.’
‘Well you must, Miss Morfasson. Everybody else in the village has taken someone in… Your nephew is the owner of this castle I presume?’
‘It is a family property. He is the current legal guardian.’
‘In that case, if he did sign the paper, even in your name, you are legally obliged to take them in.’ Mable looked affronted. In the door to the drawing room Seamus was looking worried. The hat stand was letting off small whines and Erasmus was not yet done trying to battle the nefarious ‘Flip-Flop’ and her horde of girls. He had one last card up his sleeve but it only served to confuse everybody.
‘Our grandmother was from Romania,’ he said out loud, pompously. ‘She was friends with Doctor Ackerler. I’m sure if we called him he’d do us a favour and come and eat you all,’ he warned the girls.
‘These boys are very strange, aren’t they?’ I heard one of the girls whisper to the one next to her.
‘That’s because they’re Welsh. My daddy told me to watch out for the Welsh. He said they were very rude. I can see what he meant now.’ I was offended by that statement and even more offended by the smug look of agreement on Tippsy’s face.
‘Who is Doctor Ackerler?’ another girl asked.
‘He eats children,’ Erasmus sneered.
‘Stop it Erasmus,’ Mable commanded.
‘Gorou!’ He had recently been scouring the library for exotic names. That one, I think, was Japanese.
‘If Doctor Ackerler won’t eat them we can always get the gwyllion to do it,’ the hat stand declared.
‘Shut up about the *—* gwyllion,’ Seamus hurled back at him. He had crept out from the drawing room and was starting to seriously examine the girls, the expression of a prowling hunter on his face.
‘This will be your father’s desire for a little girl,’ Mable scowled at him as he encircled the crowd of frightened girls. ‘He’s found an opportunity and he’s decided to take one in place of each of you.’
‘He’s going to replace us?’ the hat stand wobbled. Mable turned to it with a grim expression.
‘Young man, if I was your father I would have replaced you all a long time ago.’ She then gave up the face, knowing there was no way she could win for the moment. ‘Seamus… Can you see to it that all these young girls find suitable rooms?’ Seamus gave a servile nod and beckoned the girls to follow him up the stairs. They went with some reluctance.
‘I’ll see to it that Doctor Ackerler knows you’re here,’ Erasmus told them as they passed.
‘And I’m off to live with Grandfer Llithrig,’ I told everyone brusquely, making for the door. ‘See you all after the war.’
I met Seb sulking in his front garden. Mrs Violent had briefly exiled him from the cottage for launching an all out, unprovoked assault on the little girl who had come to stay with them. I also met Edward at the bottom of the track, fuming because Father had conveniently gone away to France that very morning. I returned home several hours later, having been sent back with a flea in my ear from Grandfer Llithrig. He told me to stop being so silly. Girls were only that, girls. I did not agree with him.
In my absence Seamus had turned traitor and was trying to flatter and appease the girls like a sycophant, obeying their every whim and telling them everything they wanted to know. Ti and Earnest would not come out of their rooms. Fletcher had locked himself in Father’s office and Edward had spent the time trying to get Erasmus to tell him who Doctor Ackerler was. He was still trying when I entered the library and moodily flopped down into a chair by the fireplace.
‘He lives in Romania,’ Erasmus was saying. ‘He lives in a big castle like ours only his is more scary and full of cobwebs… And he sleeps in a coffin!’ Edward was perplexed.
‘A coffin? Gorou, I am convinced you have gone looney,’ Edward groped in exasperation. In that moment I did exactly what Edward had failed to do during the many hours of my absence. My eye fell to the cracked spine of a book that was lying on the table next to me- Dracula.
Image courtesy of the BBC