By Jane Seaford
‘There’s ghosts in the basement,’ Robbie said. ‘And… evil spiders.’ He stretched his mouth wide, stuck his tongue out and waggled it.
Mattie held herself still, trying not to show her fear.
‘And, another thing,’ Julian said, ‘There’s a secret door, and steps leading down and down and down into an old dungeon. Where there’s skeletons.’
‘S’not true about the skeletons,’ Jill said. ‘You’re just trying to frighten us.’
Jill was eleven, the same age as Mattie, and the only one of the children who had been nice to her from time to time.
‘Is true,’ Alistair said. At thirteen, he was the oldest. ‘Is very true. Tonight we’re going to go down there. Anyone who doesn’t come will be ostrichised.’
‘You mean ‘ostracised’,’ Pippa said in her high precise voice.
‘I meant what I said.’ Alistair said and cuffed Pippa on the back of her neck.
Mattie wrapped her arms around herself and tried to stop trembling. It was horrible being on holiday in this horrible big old house with her horrible soon-to-be-stepmother’s horrible family. She hoped she wouldn’t start crying.
This was the third day since they’d arrived.
‘You’ll have a lovely time. So many new cousins,’ Vanessa, the soon-to-be-stepmother, had said when they were discussing the plan to spend a fortnight with Vanessa’s parents, her two sisters and their families.
‘You will,’ Dad had said but he sounded doubtful.
So far it had not been lovely.
‘So what is she to call us?’ Vanessa’s mum had said. They were sitting around the huge kitchen table having afternoon tea on the day when they’d arrived.
‘Granny and Grandpa? Like the others?’ Vanessa had said.
‘Well,’ Vanessa’s mum said. She lifted her teacup and took a small sip, closing her eyes as she did so.
‘I’m happy to be Grandpa,’ Vanessa’s dad said. ‘The more the merrier.’ He winked at Mattie and Mattie wasn’t sure how to respond. It was overwhelming. She couldn’t remember all the names, except for Jill because she had smiled at Mattie. Vanessa and her two sisters – ‘your aunts, Mattie,’ – looked like each other. And she couldn’t work out which uncle belonged to which aunt. Then there were three boy cousins, and another girl as well as Jill. The boys whispered, made faces and took no notice of Mattie.
When tea was over, Mattie followed the other children down the cliff path that led from the garden to the beach.
‘Come and see the rock pools,’ Jill said. The boys were squabbling over the cricket bat and the other girl was turning cartwheels.
‘My brothers are quite nasty. Best to ignore them,’ Jill said.
‘Which ones are your brothers?’ Mattie dared to ask.
‘Can’t you remember?’
Mattie shook her head and Jill sighed. ‘My big brother is Alistair and Robbie is my little one. They are the ones with dark hair. The other boy is Julian and posh Pippa is his big sister. Now let’s go and look at the sea anemones.’
Jill started to run towards the rocks and Mattie went with her, wishing, as she’d done so often in the short time since Vanessa had come into their lives, that it was just her and Dad living together.
Dad had made a special Sunday lunch because he said a special friend was coming over. The friend was Vanessa. That had been three months ago. And then there was another special meal and Dad told her that he and Vanessa were to be married soon and that she was coming to live with them.
It was afternoon and she was on her own, lying on the lawn. The others had gone to the beach. She had her eyes half closed and was looking at the sun through the fringe of her lashes. She was counting the days until she could go home. Ten and a half. Too many.
‘Child… Mattie…’ she heard the grandmother call. ‘Why aren’t you at the beach? Why are you alone?’
Mattie sat up. The grandmother was standing on the edge of the patio.
‘I…’ she couldn’t think of an answer.
‘They didn’t want me,’ Mattie said. They didn’t and she was trying to understand why. Normally she was popular, had friends at school and in the street where she and Dad – and now Vanessa, too – lived. She wanted to cry. She wanted to find Dad and tell him she couldn’t stay here for another ten and a half days. And she wanted to tell him that the other children were mean to her because she was an outsider, a newcomer.
‘Don’t be silly,’ the Grandmother said. ‘Get your swimming things and off you go.’
Mattie stood and headed for the house. By the time she was in the cool, dark hall, she was crying. She went up the stairs and knocked on the door of her Dad’s bedroom. But there was no reply and when she opened the door and went in the room was empty. It smelled of Vanessa, even though she wasn’t sleeping here with Dad. ‘My parents are a bit old fashioned,’ she’d said in the car coming here. ‘We won’t be sharing a bed. At least not officially.’ Mattie had turned her head to look out of the car window. Her face had been burning and she’d started to hum to herself, not wanting to hear any more that Vanessa might say.
Now, she sat on the bed, sobbing quietly, knowing she should fetch her swimming things and go down to the beach, otherwise the grandmother might punish her.
‘Hey, what’s up?’
Mattie looked up. Dad was in the doorway, frowning. She took a deep breath and said, ‘They all hate me.’
‘Mattie,’ Dad said, coming over and sitting next to her. ‘Don’t be silly. Of course they don’t.’
‘I’m not one of them,’ Mattie said.
‘No. But… Oh…’
‘Can we go home? Now?’
‘You know we can’t. We’re here to get to know Vanessa’s family. It’s our holiday.’
Mattie didn’t say anything. She’d tried before to ask Dad why he had to marry Vanessa. Once she’d said, ‘I don’t like Vanessa.’ And Dad had been cross and asked why not. Mattie had told him the truth, which was that Vanessa would prefer it if she didn’t exist. And Dad had told her not to be silly, pointed out that Vanessa had taken Mattie shopping and bought her new clothes, and lunch out. She wouldn’t do that, he’d said unless she liked Mattie. Mattie hadn’t bothered to answer, knowing she was right, but unable to articulate how she knew.
‘It’ll get better, you’ll see,’ Dad said standing up, pulling Mattie with him.
‘OK,’ Mattie said, heavily. She walked out of the room and into the one she was sharing with Jill and Pippa.
It was true that there were spiders in the basement. And cobwebs.
‘The ghosts are here, but you can’t see them,’ Robbie said. He sounded frightened. It was early evening, after tea but before supper, the time when the grownups sat in the courtyard with drinks and olives. Alistair had led the way down and the others had crept after him. No one said that they didn’t want to, although Mattie was thinking it and she was almost sure that some of the others, Jill especially, felt like that, too. It was dark and cold and smelled of damp mushrooms.
‘Now for the door to the stairs to the dungeon,’ Alistair said. He walked to the back of the huge room, slowly, running his hand along the wall as if to keep him steady. ‘Come on,’ he called when none of them followed him. Pippa went first, then Robbie and Julian. Then Jill. Then, finally, Mattie, hoping that there was no door to the stairs that led to the dungeon. But there was: Jill had told her. At least once, every year, the cousins went down to it. It was a competition. They had to go down one at a time and stay there until they’d counted to a hundred – out loud – so the others could hear. It was horrid, Jill had said, and scary.
Mattie could see that Alistair had opened a door. She heard it creak.
‘Mattie’s to go first,’ Pippa said. ‘Because she’s the newcomer. To prove herself. To become one of us.’
‘It’ll be OK,’ Jilly whispered but Mattie knew it wouldn’t be.
She swallowed. ‘I can’t do it,’ she said; the words coming out shaky. The fear of going down into the dungeon was worse than the fear of being ostracised by the group. They already either teased or ignored her.
‘You must go down,’ Pippa said.
‘You can’t make me,’ Mattie said, feeling the thrill of defiance.
‘We can,’ Alistair said. ‘But we’d rather you chose to do what we ask. Walk down those stairs, when you get to the bottom count to a hundred, loudly. Then you can come up.’
‘No,’ Mattie said. She felt herself being grabbed. Pippa on one side and Julian on the other dragged her to the top of the stairs.
‘Now. Go. Down.’ Pippa said.
‘No,’ Mattie screamed before the push, before she fell. Down. Down. Down.
She was moving out of a dark space and her head was aching. When she opened her eyes the light hurt them.
‘Mattie, Mattie,’ she heard her father’s voice. She thought he might be crying. She tried to open her eyes again.
Footsteps came close to the bed and a kind voice she didn’t know said, ‘Looks like she’s stirring.’
‘Yes. She opened her eyes but closed them immediately.’
Mattie tried to speak but the darkness came again.
Dad was talking to someone and this time Mattie kept her eyes open, blinking against the light.
‘Dad,’ she said and tried to move, but that hurt her head, and her neck and her left leg.
‘Mattie.’ Dad’s face was hovering above her.
‘I fell down into the dark,’ Mattie said. She could remember that but not what happened just before.
‘You did. Jill came and fetched us.’
‘Are we at home?’ Mattie closed her eyes again. Talking made her tired.
‘You’re in hospital.’
The next time Mattie woke she was thirsty. After her father held her head and gave her a drink, he said, ‘Your cousins have made cards for you. They’re by your bed. Jill told me to tell you that you’ve proved yourself and that you’re one of them.’
‘They’re not my cousins and I don’t want to be one of them. And they don’t want me, either.’
It was maybe an hour later, maybe the next day.
Vanessa was by her bed. Dad helped Mattie to sit up.
‘You’re getting better and better,’ he said.
Mattie wanted to say that she wasn’t. She closed her eyes and was falling again. Down, down, down. When she tried to scream, it came out like a whimper.
‘I am down in the dungeon, turning into a skeleton,’ she whispered. It felt like the truth.
Jane Seaford’s novels, ‘The Insides of Banana Skins’ and ‘Archie’s Daughter’ and her short story collection, ‘Dead is Dead and Other Stories’ have received excellent reviews.
Several of Jane’s stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast.
As a freelance journalist, she had a column in a magazine called ‘Bonjour’ and sold pieces to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. She is the joint fiction editor for takahē, a New Zealand literary magazine.
Her website is janeseaford.com