We stopped the cart just at the base of the stairs which led up to the front door. Elly, the proud mother and wife, waited as the hardy duo returned from their hard day’s work, under the rippling plethora of snow.
Though vestigial in their own, the snowflakes which filled the sky together formed like drizzle in such a bucolic atmosphere.
“Dinner’s ready.” A radiant look came over her face as we returned, like a sudden burst of sunshine on such a cloudy day.
“Just a minute.” I hauled the axe out of the wagon, and rushed up the stairs to place it by Elly’s legs in the doorway, “We’ll just get the logs inside and then we’ll eat.” I grinned across to Scarlett, and she accomplished a luminous beam in return, as we lumbered the logs with each other, and hauled them inside, out of the threatening snow.
Upon finding a free space in the right-side corner, between the front door and that of the living room, we decided to stack the firewood in piles, neatly assembling them to prevent them from toppling.
“There we go.” I rubbed my hands against each other coarsely after placing the last log upon the stack, endeavoring to rid them of all the bark and leaves which covered them, “I’ll take the cart back when I find the electricity to turn on.”
“Ready for dinner, then?” Elly repeated, closing the door behind Scarlett, as the young girl shook herself free of snow, leaves and whatever else clung effortlessly to her coat.
“Lead the way.” I happily replied, holding my arm out to beckon the girls past, before following them down through the dark corridor on the right.
The twins had already assembled themselves on the opposite bench together by the time we had entered the dining area, and there were two candles – one on each end – which served as lights whiled the sun began to crest upon the canopy outside, and five plates of hearty food lay in our designated places.
I took my seat on the end of the table, taking the old wooden stool which sat tucked in under the surface, while Elly and Scarlett took their places on the opposite side to the doppelgangers.
Cottage pie, it was, fashioned just like it would have been before the war broke out.
Despite the rationing and limiting of foods, Ted had managed to secure himself a self-sufficient farm of cattle and crops, meaning that he could provide for both himself and the local community.
Thus, we had real beef, potatoes, carrots and many more foods which, at this time, wouldn’t be available in such quantities anywhere else in the country.
I must admit, I was never the cook of the family, solely because I could never produce anything of edible standards. I only sat on the sidelines and helped when was asked, but then again I generally assisted with the setting and clearing of the table.
It was only on rare occasions throughout the year that I really liked to cook. The thought of surprising Elly every year with an exotic concoction of some sorts, maybe steak or salmon, or something else of outlandish proportions.
But this was something to savor. Every bite seemed to burst with essence, so much that I almost felt shamefaced for eating it.
“So…” Elly said between mouthfuls, “What’s the plan for this evening, then?”
I looked across to the twins, shrugging to create a giggle from the two of them, before turning back to my wife, “A game of hide and seek, maybe?”
I knew this would spark the candles inside their minds. Hide and seek was their favorite game to play. It didn’t matter whether it was in the house, the woods or even out on holiday, this game was something that they reveled to enjoy.
Of course, as expected, the twins cheered at the surprising remark from myself, as both Elly and Scarlett looked on with somewhat bleak fatigue.
The last few hours – amplified by the coldness of which the snow had brought upon the whole house – had been utterly exhausting. To me, however, there was nothing better than getting the family together in a jovial game. And, mind you, it did invite the prospect of further investigating the house.
We finished the meal while the sun further descended below the tree-line, and it peeked through the winter twilight as we stacked the dishes in the sink.
“Don’t worry about them yet.” I told Elly as she wandered towards them, “We’ll all help once the game is over.” I cheerfully looked at the others, their bright faces smiling towards their mother with fierce utility.
“Okay.” She replied, suddenly given a boost of vigor from such a delightful statement upon the ears, “I’ll count first!” She faced the wall before the doorway, and started to count.
That was it, and within no time at all, the lumbering sounds of the stockinged feet rang throughout the house as the girls – including Scarlett – scuttled off eagerly to hide.
Slowly creeping to disguise my movement, my competitive instincts decided to kick in almost mechanically, and a small door in the hallway towards the foyer caught my attention.
Upon inspection – that is, slowly opening the door in a rather ephemeral bout of anticipation – it seemed to contain a set of stairs.
Descending far below what the eye could see, the oak planks intersected the two walls down into the darkness below, and a small chord dangled, caked in thick layers of dust, on the left, a small wooden sphere acting as an aide to the willing adventurer.
There was no doubt about it, this was the basement to the house, and I must admit my fancies were rather tickled by the thought.
The hindrance of no light within the room made no altercation to my judgements as I turned back towards the kitchen.
Nearing the number fifty, Elly was looming close to announcing her search.
And so, slowly descending the stairs, frantically trying to find a handrail, I closed the door behind me.
“Ready or not,” Elly’s voice resounded throughout the oak door, “Here I come!”
Slowly like a tortoise, I stepped off the last board onto the damp cold floor – of which I believe was composed of old planks of near-rotten wood.
I could hear Elly walk past the door, the floorboards creaking under the weight of anything that moved, and a silhouette masked the dusky orange light as she swept past.
It didn’t take too long to become accustomed to the pitch darkness. I could make out shelving, crisscrossing the large room and looking somewhat industrial in its composure, and upon it was stocked full of everything one could imagine.
Books, chairs, more desks and even a few old projectors stood on each shelf, preserved in time like thatched houses along The Shambles, nestled among one another in a jigsaw-like arrangement.
Against the wall, across from the stairs, I perched myself upon an old stool. From what I could feel, it seemed some sort of kitchen chair, small and round and with about three legs, but it didn’t bother me too much.
This proved to be a much-needed resting place for myself for a moment or two, as once more I was able to lie back against the wall and…
“It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It's a long long -”
With a startled nudge, I frantically pulled the needle off the old dusty disk, and the scratching melody came to a halt.
How I’d caused it to play, I couldn’t possibly tell. What I was able to make out though, was that the silhouette reappeared at the doorway, and for a brief moment, my competitive edge had vanished.
Such was the game for me also. As the door swung slowly open, a light-hearted chuckle came from the opening light.
“You know…” It said, trying not to laugh, “If you’re playing Hide and Seek, its best not to give yourself up.”
I knew it was Elly, and from the bare single shadow which her figure carved through the dusty air over my sighing body, it was clear to see that I was first found.
“Found you!” She almost cheered, obviously making her voice known to the children, wherever they may have been.
“Bloody gramophone!” there was no denying it, I was severely unhappy with the loss, but nevertheless tried to remain in a humorous mood.
“You must have nudged it or likewise.” She replied in a rather condoling manner, “Any idea where the girls went?” She asked.
“Probably upstairs.” I shrugged, tiredly getting up from the stool and following her back up the flight.
We slowly and quietly made our way up the stairs from the foyer, up to the first floor, and immediately took and interest into the first of the girls’ rooms – the twins, that is – and listened in as we made it to the open doorway.
Sniggering, we heard. The unmistakable giggling of the two young girls. They could tell we were outside in the hallway, and as I peered in, two sets of feet were nestled under the lush red curtain between the two beds, lined with dark material.
Nodding to Elly, we walked straight past, but not before making quite a slapstick glance into the room, before figuring that the room was in fact empty, nevertheless delighting the girls.
While Elly checked Scarlett’s room for its owner, I took the time to ruffle around the old furniture by the large window overlooking the front courtyard.
All swathed with white sheets, they proved the perfect place for a mischievous teenager to hide, but proved to be less than resourceful – apart from the odd spout of dust – when inspected further.
Standing by the murky glass, I watched through as, within the large shadow of the house, the snow drifted in the monstrous wind and layered upon itself, forming feet-deep patches against the walls in some places.
I met Elly back at the doorway to our bedroom, intersecting her as she gracefully crossed the landing. With a slow and steady approach, we entered the room quietly, listening to make out any sounds which may surrender the location of Scarlett.
But it was to no avail. The only sound audible was the overpowering gusts, rattling the window locks and whistling through the cracks in the glass and the walls themselves.
“Check the bed.” I saw Elly’s lips mime, accompanied with a slightly needless explanatory beckon with the hand down to the drapery which lined the foundation of the old medieval bed.
My knees cracked and broke the accustomed silence of the room, and with a swift and graceful movement, I swiped the maroon curtain to the left.
A face stared back at me, somewhat of a smile painted across its features.
“Found you!” I cheered, startling Elly as she searched the wardrobe on the opposite side of the room.
“Damn!” Scarlett retaliated, clambering across the floor before climbing to her feet from the opposite bedside, “Have you found the twins?” She asked, whispering, as we joined together in the doorway.
“I think so.” I answered, “But I think we’ll give them a chance. They seem like they’re having fun.”
Scarlett nodded mutely as we exited the doorway and once more made it onto the landing, approaching the final straight of our search.
“Where did you hide?” She nudged me, curious. She knew as well as I did, that in this house, one could play with a hundred possibilities, the same way a musician could play his fingers across a piano.
“In the basement.” I responded proudly, as Elly looked on with a smirk – an expression which I immediately countered with a frown.
“Your father thought it would be a good idea to play some music.” She chuckled, and Scarlett joined in as well, creating a momentous harmony.
“Really?” She was clearly delighted at the fact that she wasn’t the first caught.
“Yeah…” I scratched the back of my neck, putting on a rather dubious voice, “I thought it was a tad bland down there. Nothing like a gramophone to liven up a place, hey?”
Scarlett once more let out a slight chuckle.
“I must have nudged it when I sat down.” I couldn’t possibly believe that I had, but that was what I admitted as we stood outside the twins’ room, “Here we are. Wait up.”
With quite a confused look of bewilderment brandished upon Scarlett’s face, I swarmed the room in a humorous frenzy, searching under the beds, tables, dressers – anything that would entertain the twins – before finally coming to the curtains.
“Found -” I stopped after pulling both curtains to their full extents.
They weren’t there. In fact, there was nothing there. No shoes, socks, nor even footprints in the dust which decided to horde itself below the sill.
“Where’d they go?” A sudden rush of adrenaline ran through my body. Of course, they were in no danger, but the cheeky buggers had decided to run when the coast was clear, compromising my whole game and causing me to look a complete fool.
“They’re downstairs.” Scarlett replied, as if I should have known already, “They ran in the parlor when I ran up here.”
“Okay…” I walked back to the doorway, slightly flustered and taken aback by the sudden and sharp – and may I say, quite brilliant – escape the two had been successful in cooking up, “We’ll head down there, then.”