You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
So please don't take my sunshine away.
Jimmie Davis'Persons with manners,' said Aunt Sybil, 'do not slouch at the table. Nor,' she added, looking sternly at me over the top of her spectacles, 'do they permit their daemons to do so.'
'Cow!' whispered my Alfie.
'I say, Sybil,' said Daddy from the end of the table where he was helping himself to sprouts and carrots, 'do go easy on Sunny. It is the last day of the holidays, after all.'
'Good manners are very important, Ronald,' said my aunt. 'Sonya must understand that. You do understand that, don't you, Sonya?'
'Yes, Aunt Sybil,' I replied.
'Then sit up, girl! And don't speak with your mouth full.'
She turned to my father again. 'It was a pity that Sonya did not feel able to join us at Saint Jonas' this morning. Father Macpherson gave us a most illuminating and instructive address.'
'What address was that?' I said. 'The address of the Old Bull?' Our vicar was a regular visitor to the village pub.
'Sunny!' Daddy said.
'I shall choose to ignore that interruption. It was as foolish as it was ignorant and uninformed. Father Macpherson does a great deal of good work among the poor.'
'He does a great deal of boozing, you mean.'
'Please, Sunny,' said Daddy, and gave me that look.
'If there are any more remarks of that nature it will become necessary for you to leave the table immediately.' Aunt Sybil's cat-daemon blinked his amber eyes and the fur along his back bristled in indignation. I hated to upset Daddy, so I lowered my eyes and said, 'Sorry, Aunt Sybil.'
'I should hope so. Father Macpherson is a good and holy man. His work deserves our full support, especially in such difficult times as we are now living through.'
'Amen,' said Daddy and I joined him, thinking of Gerry and trying to forget the creepy way Father Macpherson looked at me. As a rule I liked attending Divine Worship, but not at Saint Jonas'.
'Amen, indeed.' Aunt Sybil had the last word, as usual.
- 0 -
'Persons with manners,' said Alfie from his place on the pillow of my bed, 'do not eat with their mouths full.' He had Aunt Sybil just so - the angle of her neck, the stiffness of her back, the exact sound of her voice. I giggled, and threw my toy lion Noel at him. Alfie ducked, and the stuffed animal bounced off the wall, hit the bookcase and went flying out of the bedroom window. I think he landed in a rhododendron bush.
I had been sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the bed, but now I lay down and stretched myself out full-length on top of the blankets. Alfie snuggled down next to me, and I absent-mindedly stroked his silky-soft fur. As I ran my hand over and over along his back, smoothing and soothing him, a lovely warm feeling settled over us both and all my horrible thoughts of school and Aunt Sybil began to fade into the distance. I know what they say about petting your daemon too much - Miss Selborne spent a whole Personal Theology lesson last term going on about it - but it's so nice and all the other girls do it, so why shouldn't I? We didn't do our special thing, though.
My bedroom's right at the top of the house and it looks out over the garden, past Mummy's mulberry trees and the withy fence, to the fields of Hallbridge Farm. As it was early September the reapers were out bringing in the harvest, swinging their scythes and stacking the wheat in sheaves ready to be carted off to the mill. They stood in rows like soldiers on parade.
The window that overlooks the farm has real lead in it because our house is very old, and the glass is old too and quite hard to see through. Usually I keep the sash pulled up so I can see out and the air and the sounds from outside can come in. That way I can be inside and outside at the same time, if that makes any sense. Inside the walls are all covered with drawings I've made and stories and poems I've written, right back to when I was a little girl and only three or four years old. The drawings are of houses and trees like the ones I can see through the little diamond-shaped panes of the windows; or they're pictures of Mummy or Daddy or Gerry. Funny little stick-people, with their arms and legs and fingers and toes spread out like starfish and straight hair hanging down from the tops of their heads. They're always smiling, those people in my pictures.
My room's got a stable door, so I can open the top half and leave the bottom half shut if I want. Mummy had that put in when I was a toddler so I wouldn't fall down the stairs. I'm up in the old attic, you see? Mister Breve from the village plastered the walls for me and I had them painted white so it doesn't get too dark; except that now there are so many bits of paper - my drawings, mostly - hanging off it Mrs Frame says it's like washing day in here, and she laughs her funny laugh and I join in, even though Alfie and me have heard her say it every day of our life, nearly.
Because we're up in the attic the walls slope in where the roof is. This means that the grown-ups don't come in here very often (except for Mrs Frame, of course) because they bang their silly heads on the slopey bits. Alfie and me don't mind that one little bit. My bed is right up against one of the slopey walls. Then there's a bookcase with all my favourites in it, although I don't read them as much as I used to. I'm not a baby any more, and I was going to throw them away or give them to the poor children only Daddy said no, don't do that, you'll want them one day. Daddy's always right even when he's wrong, so I've kept the books and I even look at them occasionally. One thing I like about school is that they've got lots of books there, and they're not all religious.
Next to the bookcase is my table, where I do my writing and my homework when I have to. There's an old chair in front of it - its legs have worn great big holes in the carpet - with a comfy cushion that I made out of curtain material and kapok and sewed up myself. I've got an old broken cup on the shelf with all my pens and pencils in it. When I'm writing for school I have to use a pen and hold it properly and observe the rules of penmanship and dot my i's and cross my t's (and I've probably got the apostrophes wrong there.) When I'm writing the stuff that's just for me I do it in pencil so I can rub out the mistakes or change the words that aren't quite right and so not waste paper. Daddy says that even though we can afford to buy all the paper we want we mustn't waste it. Oh, I've got a photogram of Gerry and Eugénie too, of course. I can see it from my bed.
Then there's an oak wardrobe with a looking-glass on the front standing against the only wall that doesn't slope in, next to the door. That only had my posh frocks and my nice sloppy home clothes left hanging in it now. My horrid stiff-starched school things were in my trunk; and that was standing next to the front door with a big, ugly, official Highdean School label on it, waiting for the carrier's van to come and take it away.
Yes, it was the last Sunday of the last week of the school holidays. In less than an hour I would have to catch the train up to London. It was time I changed into my school uniform and said my goodbyes. Some I'd said already. Regulus, my pony - I'd brushed him down for one last time, and stroked his mane and whispered in his ears and kissed his beautiful pale-grey face, and then he'd gone off to the stables. I wouldn't see him again until the next holidays. The servants - the ones we still had left - would wave me off. That left two others.
Oh well. Time to get changed, so I might as well get on with it. Not only was my school uniform frumpy and dull - grey skirt and brown stockings, brown blazer, brown tie and brown hat, it was made of horrible stiff scratchy stuff. Wool and thick-ribbed cotton and starch. What made it even worse was that everything was brand-new and extra-scratchy, stiff and uncomfortable. I'd grown a lot over the summer.
Grown or not, Aunt Sybil had made sure that all my new school clothes had plenty of spare room in them. The skirt hung down over my knees and the blazer sagged and bagged everywhere, however much I did up the buttons and tightened up the straps. I looked at myself in the looking-glass and nearly burst into tears. It was simply too awful - I looked like some dreadful fright of a librarian.
There's a thing you can do with the waistband of a uniform skirt to make it a little shorter and less likely to rub your knees raw, but I couldn't do it now. I had to go and see Aunt Sybil and wish her goodbye.
- 0 -
Aunt Sybil was sitting in Daddy's chair, behind Daddy's desk, in Daddy's study. I stood in front of her and tried not to look as furious and fed-up as I felt.
'Sonya. Why did you not knock?'
'I'm sorry, Aunt Sybil. I knew that you were in here, and that you were expecting me.'
'Nevertheless, you should have knocked.' Why, what were you doing in here? What were you up to?
'Yes, Aunt Sybil.'
'Sonya, you are going up to the Sixth Form this term, are you not?'
'Yes, Aunt Sybil.'
'Entry into the Sixth Form and the Senior School brings responsibilities as well as privileges. You are aware of that, I presume?'
'Certainly, Aunt Sybil.' This was quite true. Senior School girls were permitted to use the short cut by the Chapel. Junior School girls were not. And you could stay up half an hour later before bedtime.
'I have said this to you before, but I shall say it again. Your attitude to your studies is distinctly wanting. You show a lack of seriousness. Your school reports have been, at best, patchy'
'Yes, Aunt Sybil.'
'You must learn to apply yourself more diligently to your subjects, even when they do not interest you. Life does not consist of doing exactly as you like all the time.'
'No, Aunt Sybil.' I nodded, then I realised my mistake and shook my head. So did Alfie, scowling at Aunt Sybil's Agamemnon who arched his back and glared at him.
'Control your daemon!' Aunt Sybil snapped. Alfie crept to my blazer pocket. 'Alpharintus is as bad as you!'
I tried to look as steadily as I could at Aunt Sybil's fat, jowly face. Whenever my friends met her they liked her - Sunny's stout, jolly Aunt Sybil. They didn't know her like Alfie and me did.
'I shall be looking for excellent reports at the end of this term. Excellent, do you understand? If you are to progress to the University you will have to do much better at your studies than you have so far.' My aunt shook her head. 'Much better. And there is one other thing that I must tell you.'
'Yes, Aunt Sybil?'
'You have occupied the nursery for quite long enough. Too long, in fact. You must begin to grow up now, Sonya, and leave childish things behind you. I will have your stuff moved out of your old room and into the Azure Bedroom. You will find it spacious and far more suitable for the needs of a young lady of your age and social standing.'
'But.' I spluttered, lost for words. This was horrible. This was the most terrible thing she could have done, to put me out of my lovely bedroom under the eaves of the house, where the starlings came every summer to talk to Alfie and me.
'Do not think of trying to contradict me. In this, as in all matters concerning your welfare, I shall have my way. I know what is best for you.'
She would win this one, I knew it. While I was away at Highdean she would go through all my precious things and throw most of them away, probably. When I came back it would all be different and strange. It wouldn't feel like my home any more. I felt a little sick.
'Yes, Aunt Sybil.' There was nothing to be done - not now, anyway - and my legs were beginning to go numb from standing in one place. 'May I leave now?'
'Yes, you may. Kiss me goodbye, then. And Sonya?'
'Yes, Aunt Sybil?'
'Please do well next term. You owe it to everyone. Yourself of course, me and your father. And especially Gerald. He gave up a great deal for us. We must remember that, and do our very best to live up to the example that he set.'
How dare she! How dare she use my brother as a way of getting her own way with me! That did it. I turned my back on Aunt Sybil and stamped out of the room, slamming the door behind me as hard as I could.
- 0 -
Daddy was waiting by the car. 'What's up, Sunshine?' he said, seeing my face.
'It's her!' I cried out. 'The hideous old bat! Lecturing me, and throwing me out of my bedroom, and talking about Gerry, and...'
Daddy put his arms around me, and I let my face rest on his tweed shoulder and made it all salty-wet for him.
'I'm sorry, Daddy,' I said after a while, lifting my head. 'It's just so unfair.'
'I know, Sunshine,' he said. 'I know. Everything's desperately unfair. We've got to be brave, haven't we?' He looked so sad then, and I thought of Mummy and Gerry and how we were all leaving him, one by one, and I shook the tears out of my eyes and sniffled and said yes.
'Let's get going then shall we, sweetheart?'
Daddy opened the passenger door of the Ridgeworth for me and got in on the driver's side. Alfie sat on my lap and Daddy's beautiful lioness-daemon Eurydice settled down behind him, looking forwards over the steering tiller. With a loud clunk from the handbrake we set off, down the drive, out of the gates and through the village, in good time to catch the half-past three stopping train for London's Paddington station.
This story is the latest in an ongoing series which started more than three years ago with The Reliquary. I've added quite a lot to it since then.
Don't let that put you off reading this tale. You don't have to have read any of the previous yarns to follow this one. I'll make sure that any references to earlier events are adequately explained as we go along.
Oh, and by the way - if you're a Sraffie and you think you spot a passing reference to yourself among the characters that Sunny meets in the course of her adventures, you're probably right...