The first impression of Great-Aunt Dymphna was that she was more like an enormous bird than a great- aunt. This was partly because she wore a black cape, which seemed to flap behind her when she moved. Then her nose stuck out of her thin wrinkled old face just like a very hooked beak. On her head she wore a man’s tweed hat beneath which struggled wispy white hair. She wore under the cape a shapeless long black dress. On her feet, in spite of it being a fine warm evening, were rubber boots.
The children gazed at their great-aunt, so startled by her appearance that the polite greetings they would have made vanished from their minds. Naomi was so scared that, though tears went on rolling down her cheeks, she did not make any more noise. Great- Aunt Dymphna had turned her attention to the luggage.
‘Clutter, clutter! I could never abide clutter. What have you got in all this?’ As she said ‘this’ a rubber boot kicked at the nearest suitcase.
‘Clothes mostly,’ said Alex.
‘Mummy didn’t know what we’d need,’ Penny explained, ‘so she said we’d have to bring everything.’
‘Well, as it’s here we must take it home I suppose,’ said Great-Aunt Dymphna. ‘Bring it to the car,’ and she turned and, like a great black eagle, swept out.
Both at London airport and when they had arrived at Cork a porter had helped with the luggage. But now there was no porter in sight and it was clear Great-Aunt Dymphna did not expect that one would be used. Alex took charge.
‘You and Naomi carry those two small cases,’ he said to Robin. ‘If you could manage one of the big ones, Penny, I can take both mine and then I’ll come back for the rest.’
Afterwards the children could never remember much about the drive to Reenmore. Great- Aunt Dymphna, in a terrifyingly erratic way, drove the car. It was a large incredibly old black Austin. As the children lurched and bounced along – Robin in front, the other three in the back – Great-Aunt Dymphna shot out information about what they met in passing.
‘Never trust cows when there’s a human with them. Plenty of sense when on their own. Nearly hit that one but only because that stupid man directed the poor beast the wrong way.’
As they flashed past farms dogs ran out barking, prepared at risk of their lives to run beside the car.
‘Never alter course for a dog,’ Great-Aunt Dymphna shouted, ‘just tell him where you are going. It’s all he wants.’
Then, to the dog: ‘We are going to Reenmore, dear.’ Her system worked for at once the dog stopped barking and quietly ran back home.
For other cars or for bicycles she had no respect at all.
‘Road hogs,’ she roared. ‘Road hogs. Get out of my way or be smashed, that’s my rule.’
‘Oh, Penny,’ Naomi whispered, clinging to her. ‘We’ll be killed, I know we will.’
Penny was sure Naomi was right but she managed to sound brave.
‘I expect it’s all right. She’s been driving all her life and she’s still alive.’
The only road- users Great- Aunt Dymphna respected were what the children would have called gipsies, but which she called tinkers. They passed a cavalcade of these travelling, not in the gipsy caravans they had seen in England, but in a different type with rounded tops. Behind and in front of the caravans horses ran loose.
‘Splendid people tinkers,’ Great- Aunt Dymphna shouted.
Then, slowing down, she called out something to the tinkers which might, for all the children understood, have been in a foreign language. Then, to the children: ‘If you need medicine they’ll tell you where it grows.’
Alex took advantage of the car slowing down to mention the cable.
‘We promised Mummy we’d send it,’ he explained. ‘And she’s sending one to us to say she’s arrived and how Daddy is.’
‘Perhaps a creamery lorry will deliver it sometime,’Great-Aunt Dymphna said. ‘That’s the only way a telegram reaches me. You can send yours from Bantry. The post office will be closed but you can telephone from the hotel.’
Penny had no idea what a creamery lorry might be but she desperately wanted her mother’s cable.
‘Oh, dear, I hope the creamery lorry will be quick, we do so dreadfully want to know how Daddy is.’
‘Holding his own,’ Great- Aunt Dymphna shouted. ‘I asked the seagulls before I came out. They’ll tell me if there’s any change.’
‘She’s as mad as a coot,’ Alex whispered to Penny. ‘I should think she ought to be in an asylum.’
‘I do hope other people live close to Reenmore. I don’t like us to be alone with her.’
But in Bantry when they stopped to send the cable nobody seemed to think Great-Aunt Dymphna mad. It is true the children understood very little of what was said for they were not used to the Irish brogue, but it was clear from the tone of voice used and the expression on people’s faces that what the people of Bantry felt was respect. It came from the man who filled the car up with petrol, and another who put some parcels in the boot.
‘Extraordinary!’ Alex whispered to Penny when he came out of the hotel. ‘When I said “Miss Gareth said it would be all right to send a cable” you’d have thought I had said the Queen had said it was all right.’
‘Why, what did they say?’ Penny asked.
‘It was more the way they said it than what they said, but they told me to write down the message and they would telephone it through right away.’
It was beginning to get dark when they left Bantry but as the children peered out of the windows they could just see purplish mountains, and that the roads had fuchsia hedges instead of ordinary bushes, and that there must be ponds or lakes for often they caught the shimmer of water.
‘At least it’s awfully pretty,’ Penny whispered to Alex.
‘Like Mummy said it would be.’
‘I can’t see how that’ll help if she’s mad,’ Alex whispered back.
Suddenly, without a word of warning, Great-Aunt Dymphna stopped the car.
‘We’re home.’ Then she chuckled. ‘I expect you poor little town types thought we’d never make it, but we always do. You’ll learn.’
The children stared out of the car windows. Home! They seemed to be in a lonely lane miles from anywhere.
‘Get out. Get out,’ said Great- Aunt Dymphna. ‘There’s no drive to the house. It’s across that field.’
The children got out. Now they could see that the car had stopped at a gap in a fuchsia hedge, and that on the other side of the hedge there was a field with a rough track running across it.
‘Where do you garage your car?’ Alex asked.
Great-Aunt Dymphna gave another chuckle.
‘There isn’t what you mean by a garage, but there’s a shed in the field. Too dark to put the car away tonight. Shall leave her where she is until the morning.’
Although the children were used to staying in a caravan they were not used to walking about in the country in the night. On caravan holidays they were always in or near the caravan eating supper or doing something as a family long before it was dark. Now they found they were expected to carry their suitcases across a pitch black field to an invisible house, without even a light to guide them. As well there was no Great-Aunt Dymphna to lead the way for, having said the car would wait where it was until the morning, she had vanished across the field, her cape flapping behind her.
‘Horrible old beast!’ thought Alex, dragging their cases from the boot.
‘She really is insufferable.’ But he kept what he felt to himself for out loud all he said was:
‘Let’s just take the cases we need tonight. We can fetch the others in the morning.’
Alex led the way, carrying his and Naomi’s cases, Robin came next, Penny, gripping Naomi’s hand, followed the boys.
‘I don’t wonder nobody brings a telegram here,’ said Robin. ‘I shouldn’t think anybody brings anything. I should think we could all be dead before a doctor comes.’
Alex could have hit him.
‘Shut up, you idiot. Of course people come, you heard what she said about a creamery lorry, and there must be a postman, everybody has those.’
‘If they’re real they do,’ Robin agreed, ‘but I don’t think she is real. I think she’s a vampire. I shouldn’t wonder if she drank our blood when we’re asleep.’
Naomi gave a moan and stumbled against Penny. Penny was sick with fear but she was also angry.
‘I should have thought, Robin, one way and another things were awful enough without you making them worse.’
Then she said to Naomi: ‘Don’t listen to him, darling, you’ll feel quite different after a hot bath and then I’ll give you your supper in bed.’
Naomi was clear about that.
‘Not if it means my being alone for one single minute you won’t.’
‘Even if you don’t think she’s a vampire,’ said Robin, ‘I vote we keep our windows shut just in case, that’s the way they get in.’
Alex put down the suitcases and turned to face Robin.
‘Will you shut up. You know you promised you’d obey me.’
Robin was outraged.
‘Mummy said I was to do what you and Penny told me, but she didn’t say I wasn’t to talk.’
Alex’s voice was fierce. ‘Well, I’m telling you to shut up and that’s an order.’
After that, except for angry mutters from Robin they finished crossing the field in silence. It was then they saw a light. It was very feeble but it was a light.
‘Thank goodness,’ said Penny. ‘This suitcase weighs a ton.’
The light was a candle held by Great-Aunt Dymphna.
‘Come along, come along. Thought I’d lost you.’
The children followed Great-Aunt Dymphna into the house and thankfully put down their suitcases. Great-Aunt Dymphna was lighting four more candles, each was stuck
to a saucer.
‘You can’t see much in this light but up those stairs and turn left you’ll come to a door, that’s the west wing. It’s all yours.’
Penny was standing beside Alex, she gripped his hand.
‘Ask about supper?’ she whispered.
‘Thank you very much,’ Alex said, trying desperately to sound polite. ‘Do we come down for supper?’
‘Supper!’ Great-Aunt Dymphna sounded as though she was trying out a new word. ‘Oh! When you get to the west wing at the end of the passage there are back stairs. At the bottom there is a kitchen, you’ll find all you need there. Good night.’
In the flickering light of their candles the children humped their cases up the stairs, which were wide and uncarpeted. At the top of the stairs they turned left as directed and sure enough they came to a heavy door. Alex opened it but when they were all through it closed creakingly behind them. Penny shivered.
‘How shall we know which rooms are for us?’
The question answered itself for on the first door they came to a piece of paper was pinned. It said ‘Penelope.’ They all walked in.
The room was almost bare, it had no carpet, no curtains and no pictures, but there was a large unmade double bed with one pillow, two blankets, two sheets and one pillowcase lying on it. In a corner there was a mahogany cupboard. It was so awful a bedroom Penny said nothing except:
‘Let’s look at the other rooms.’
Alex’s room was next, it was just like Penny’s except that his bed was single and one of its legs had a bit broken off it, so the bed was propped up on two books. He had no cupboard but he had a cheap yellow chest of drawers. In Robin’s room there was also a single bed and what must once have been a rather grand hanging cupboard but the door was off its hinges. Naomi’s room, which was the far side of the bathroom, had a single bed, a rickety chest of drawers, which leant drunkenly against the wall, but she had a picture, it was of the devil pushing a man into a cauldron.
Everything was so truly terrible it was no good pretending it was not so Alex did not try, instead he said: ‘Just dump the cases and we’ll see what’s for supper.’
The mention of supper was too much for Naomi, she sat on the floor and howled.
‘I couldn’t eat anything. I’m frightened. I won’t sleep alone in this horrible room. Nobody is going to make me.’
Penny knelt down beside her and hugged her.
‘Of course you shan’t sleep alone, you can sleep with me in my bed, it’s enormous.’
‘She’s a witch,’ Naomi howled. ‘I know she’s a witch. Oh, Penny, I’m so frightened!’
‘It’s all right, Naomi,’ said Alex. ‘Of course she isn’t a witch, you’ll be all right in the morning, you’re only tired.’
But Naomi would not be comforted.
‘If she’s not a witch she’s a vampire, like Robin said.’
Penny tried to laugh.
‘Don’t be so silly, darling, there aren’t such things . . . ’
Then she broke off for at that moment something banged against the window before it flew off into the night.
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
BY THE AUTHOR OF BALLET SHOES
with beautiful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone
'A joyous, sunlight book. For me, the best Noel Streatfeild of all' HILARY MCKAY
'"You have a whole wing of the house to yourselves. The glorious world outside to play in. All that the earth brings forth to feed you, and you stand there asking foolish questions until my head reels. Help yourselves, children, help yourselves." Then, flapping her cloak as if to shoo off a clutter of chickens, Great Aunt Dymphna was gone.'
Summer will be different for the Gareth children this year. Their father, an epidemiologist, is ill abroad, and their mother must go to help him. So Alex, Penny, Naomi and Robin are sent to Ireland to stay with an eccentric distant relative.
Great Aunt Dymphna is like nobody they've ever met. She lives in a ramshackle house, quotes swathes of poetry and flits about like a great bat. And, to the children's consternation, she expects them to fend for themselves. Despite tears and many mishaps, they learn something new every day, and living with Great Aunt Dymphna becomes an adventure.