Authors: Jacqueline Harvey
lementine had been wondering about Aunt Violet and the unfortunate incidents all afternoon. Maybe her mother had accidentally spilled orange juice on her, like Clementine had on one of the guests at breakfast last week. It wasn’t Clemmie’s fault that the lady was wearing a white pants-suit, and Clemmie was only trying to help because Uncle Digby was busy in the kitchen. Maybe her mother had accidentally snapped the key in the lock of the bathroom door when Aunt Violet was in there, as Clementine had done to another guest a few weeks before. That lady wasn’t happy at all when Uncle Digby had to climb up a ladder and go through the bathroom window to rescue her.
Clementine loved being a good helper. It was just that sometimes things didn’t work out the way she planned. She wondered if her mother had been like that too when she was younger.
On the way home from the village she had asked her mother lots of questions about Aunt Violet. But Lady Clarissa was too lost in her own thoughts to give Clemmie the answers she wanted.
When they got back to the house, two of their guests had already arrived. While her mother and Uncle Digby were busy fussing over them, Clementine was left to play on her own with Lavender. She was practising with her skipping rope on the front lawn and Lavender was munching on some long grass near the stone wall when a shiny red car roared up the driveway. Clementine knew it was an expensive one, too, because it had a big silver star on the bonnet. Uncle Digby was always saying that if he won the lottery he would buy one just like it.
Clementine ran over to say hello. She liked greeting the guests and her mother said that it was important to be friendly and make a good impression. A very thin, tall woman with the most perfect silver bobbed hairdo got out of the car. She wore a stylish lime green pants-suit and Clementine noticed her matching shoes. Her huge sunglasses were round and dark and she didn’t take them off.
The woman looked at the house and shuddered.
‘Hello,’ said Clementine. ‘I like your shoes. Are you staying here?’
‘Yes,’ the woman replied. ‘What are
doing here?’ She raised her glasses to the top of her head and narrowed her dark-blue eyes as she studied the child in her pretty dress.
‘I live here,’ Clementine replied.
The woman glared at her. ‘What do you mean you live here? Since when?’
‘Since I came with the dinner rolls,’ Clementine answered truthfully.
‘Since you came with the dinner rolls! What sort of an answer is that?’ the woman scoffed. ‘Do you know where the lady of the house is?’
‘Well, I’m not really sure because Mummy’s been running around taking care of some of the other guests. She’s been upset ever since we were in the village this morning and she found out that her Aunt Violet is coming tomorrow. I’ve never met her. She has a beautiful portrait on the stairs and I talk to her quite a bit, except that I call her Grace because I didn’t know her real name. But Mummy says that she’s horrid and she’s like a barnacle. She must be very old too, I think,’ Clementine gabbled.
The woman’s eyes seemed to change colour from blue to black right in front of Clementine.
She stared at the child.
She leaned closer.
She pointed one finger right in front of Clementine’s nose.
And just as she was about to speak, the front door of the house opened and Lady Clarissa raced out onto the driveway.
‘Oh, Aunt Violet, you’re early. It’s good to see you,’ she gushed, kissing the woman on both cheeks.
‘Really?’ Violet straightened her back and arched her perfectly plucked left eyebrow at Clarissa. ‘You’re glad to see me? That’s not what I’ve just heard. And I told you I’d be here on Friday.’
Clarissa fingered the letter in her pocket. She knew it said Saturday, but there was no point arguing with Aunt Violet.
Clementine was biting her lip. Sometimes she wished she didn’t talk so much.
‘Clemmie, come and meet your Great-aunt Violet,’ Clarissa instructed.
‘Oh, we’ve met,’ Violet snarled. ‘But when did you have a baby, Clarissa?’
‘But I told you before, Aunt Violet, I came with the dinner rolls,’ said Clementine. She wondered if her great-aunt had a hearing problem.
Clarissa began to explain.‘It’s complicated –’
‘Of course it’s complicated. It’s never simple with you, dear, is it? Now, are you going to ask me in or do I have to stand out here for the rest of the afternoon?’ asked Violet tightly.
‘Of course, Aunt Violet, the kettle’s on and I’ve got a lovely chocolate sponge.’ Clarissa turned and frowned at Clementine. Clemmie had never seen her mother like this before. ‘This way,’ said Clarissa and walked back towards the house.
‘I need to get Pharaoh,’ Violet snapped. She strode around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. She pulled out a rectangular black bag, and headed for the front door.
Clementine noticed that the bag had mesh on both ends. ‘What’s Pharaoh?’ she asked, peering into the mesh.
The occupant of the bag hissed.
Clementine recoiled. ‘I hope he’s not a snake. Mummy hates snakes and last week I got into big trouble for leaving my python in one of the bedrooms.’
‘He’s a sphynx,’ Violet replied. She glared at the little girl. ‘And he doesn’t like children. Do you, my gorgeous little man?’
Clementine tried to get a closer look. She’d never seen a sphynx before.
‘I suppose I have to show myself inside then, do I, seeing that niece of mine has vanished,’ Violet tutted.
‘I can take you.’ Clementine walked beside the woman. ‘And I’m sorry about what I said, Aunt Violet. I didn’t recognise you. You’re much older than the lady on the wall near Grandpa.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ said Violet tartly. ‘In my experience most people don’t usually mean it when they say sorry, and as you’re just a child, I don’t imagine that you ever mean it.’
Violet strode into the hall, leaving Clementine on the front steps wondering what she had meant. Clementine
sorry. She didn’t know why Aunt Violet didn’t believe her.
lementine Rose called Lavender to come inside. As soon as she heard her name the little pig ran towards her and the two of them headed off to find her mother.
‘Hello Uncle Digby,’ Clementine said, as she almost bumped into him. He just managed to steady the tea tray he was carrying.
‘Ooh, ooh, careful, Clementine. Good afternoon, Lavender. Your mother tells me Aunt Violet has arrived a day early. I’m afraid it’s not a surprise. She never was very reliable. Have you met her yet?’ the old man asked.
‘Yes, just a little while ago. I think I said the wrong thing,’ Clementine said with a worried frown.
‘My dear girl, no one ever says the right thing to that woman,’ the butler said with a smile. ‘But don’t worry. We haven’t seen her in years and I suspect that as soon as she’s upset your mother to her satisfaction, she’ll be off and we won’t see her again for another ten years. I’d best get this tea to the guests in the front sitting room. Your mother is in the kitchen.’
‘She’s got a sphynx,’ Clementine informed him.
Digby frowned. He looked at Clementine patiently and waited for her to explain further.
‘It’s in a bag and it hissed at me,’ Clementine said. ‘I hope it’s not dangerous.’
Digby hoped so too.
Clementine skipped off to the kitchen with Lavender tripping along behind her. Lady Clarissa was pulling teacups and their matching saucers down from the dresser.
‘Hello Mummy,’ the child said as she and Lavender entered the room. ‘Where’s Aunt Violet?’
‘Upstairs.’ Clarissa turned and Clementine noticed she was frowning. ‘I had planned to put her in the Blue Room on the third floor but she insisted on having the Rose Room on the second with the bathroom attached. I’d kept that for the guests arriving this evening. I can’t possibly charge the same rate for the other room. It’s much smaller and not nearly as nice.’ She bit her lip. ‘And now the guests will have to share their bathroom, which they specifically asked not to.’
‘Mummy, why don’t you like Aunt Violet?’ Clementine Rose asked as she pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table. Lavender lay down underneath and settled in for a snooze.
‘It’s a very long story but she was horrible to Grandpa and to me.’
‘What about?’ Clementine asked.
‘Money,’ her mother replied as she fetched the teapot from the stove.
‘But we don’t have any, so we don’t have to worry about it,’ Clementine said. She’d heard her mother say that to Uncle Digby lots of times.
Clarissa laughed. ‘Yes, and I suppose that’s the problem. Aunt Violet and your grandfather fought about money. You see, he inherited Penberthy House from his parents and Aunt Violet got a small allowance and nothing more.’
‘But why didn’t she get the house too?’ Clementine asked.
‘That’s just how things worked then, I’m afraid. The eldest son got the house. But Grandpa and Aunt Violet had been very close when they were children and he always felt badly about it too, so over the years he gave Aunt Violet as much as he could. He even bought her a cottage so she’d have a home but Aunt Violet sold everything to pay for her expensive clothes and holidays.’
Clementine still looked confused.
‘Your great-aunt likes the finer things in life,’ her mother explained. ‘But you don’t need to worry about any of it, Clementine. I’m hoping that she’ll be gone tomorrow.’
‘I thought Grandpa looked a bit annoyed,’ said Clementine, nodding.
‘Did you think so, darling?’ her mother asked fondly.
‘Oh yes, he looked cross when I came inside,’ the child said.
The walls in Penberthy House were lined with portraits of all the past owners and family members. A large painting of Clemmie’s grandfather hung in the entrance hall, along with one of her grandmother and, she now knew, Aunt Violet. Clementine liked to talk to them from time to time, and was certain that they changed their expressions depending on what was going on around the house. She was sure that her grandmother laughed the first time Lavender tried to walk up the stairs and kept on slipping back down. Her grandfather had a kindly smile and Clementine often chatted to him about this and that. She liked to practise her poems for them as well. Lady Clarissa would often hear her daughter telling tales to the family. She thought it was wonderful that Clementine had such a vivid imagination.
The clacking of heels on the bare timber floor rang out a warning that someone was approaching.
‘Is the tea ready yet?’ Violet’s voice entered the room before she did.
‘Won’t be a moment, Aunt Violet,’ Clarissa said quickly and busied herself pouring boiling water into the teapot.
Clementine looked at her great-aunt. She wondered what had happened to the beautiful young woman in the portrait.
Violet stared back at Clementine.
‘Am I to take tea in here? In the kitchen?’ the old woman scoffed. ‘While your friends are waited on hand and foot in the sitting room?’
Clarissa ignored Violet’s questions and placed a teacup and plate with a large slice of sponge cake on the table.
Violet stared at the tea and cake. ‘Well, I suppose that’s your answer.’ She pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘Is this Mother’s good china?’ The older woman lifted the plate and studied the underside.
‘Yes, Aunt Violet,’ Clarissa replied. ‘I’m afraid I’ve had to use what we’ve got over the years. I can’t afford to replace it.’
‘This was only ever allowed out of the cupboard on Christmas Day. Mother would turn in her grave.’ The woman shook her head. ‘I should have taken it and sold it when I had the chance,’ she whispered under her breath.
‘Do you have milk, Aunt Violet?’ Clarissa asked, hoping to steer her off the subject of the china.
‘Of course I do. I should think you’d remember, Clarissa,’ Violet snarled. She pointed at the cake. ‘Did you make that?’
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ Clarissa said. ‘I haven’t had time today.’
‘Pierre made it,’ Clementine offered. ‘He makes the best cakes ever.’
Violet tilted her chin upwards and gave Clementine a sidelong glance. ‘We’ll see about that.’
‘Would you like to hear a poem?’ Clementine asked.
‘A what?’ Violet sipped her tea.