Waterson Cottage had an untended stone path that led to its oak-panelled front door. This door had a large iron knocker in the centre, and a large, plain Hessian mat in front of it. Each of the cottage’s four windows was square, ordinary and forbidding. Unwashed newt curtains hung slackly at each window: but at least one welcoming sign for which the children had been searching was there in the form of a roaring fire visible in the bottom left-hand corner window. It brought to mind things only half-remembered, of years ago. before the children’s home, before everything, but then their thoughts were rudely interrupted by Growler.
“Come aarn then! Else you’ll be out in the cold all night. Your supper’s ready, then it’s bed. No aarguments, moind.” The kitchen into which they were unceremoniously hustled had all the trappings of shabbiness. Two bowls, complete with forks and spoons, were laid on opposite sides of a kitchen table, of plain but well-scrubbed deal, and steaming soup was in them. Wooden platters containing badly carved slabs of granary bread accompanied them. As soon as they entered the kitchen, despite the blast of warmth from the log fire in the grate, Sarah shivered, for there was an atmosphere that communicated itself to her very strongly. It was a feeling…well…that someone else was there in the room with them aside from their disconsolate keeper. But she was waiting impatiently for the moment when she and Giles could be alone, so that they could talk freely to each other for the first time since leaving the children’s home.
For now, however, Growler was stalking around them like a game warden as they took their places on the wooden benches to eat their simple, but longer for, meal. He was eying them both suspiciously, as if he thought that the two children were predatory lions who would eat him if unattended. Eventually, after what seemed like ten years (but was in fact five minutes), he fished an enormous, time-worn fob watch, on a gold chain that looked as though it had been repaired many times, from his waistcoat pocket, eyed the watch with the same suspicion that he had accorded the children, and grumbled, ‘Where’s that damned woan o’ moine? armin’ hersel’ in the parlour, oi’ll be bound. You two stay ‘ere, and don’t move till oi gets baack, else…’, and here he drew his left forefinger across his throat in a graphic gesture of intimidation. The children shivered, but stayed dumb.
‘You ‘ear?’ he roared, on receiving no response. They nodded their heads, silent still. Seemingly satisfied, he withdrew, lumbering along the stone passage, through that oaken door, and it was only when the sound of his footsteps had receded that Giles and Sarah dared to talk. Giles put down his spoon. ‘Solly’, he whispered, ‘what sort of place is this, why are we here, where are we going next, and who are those horrible people? Why have they got charge of us?’ The desperation in his voice prompted Sarah to assume the mantle of sensible oder sister, and she fixed him with a business-like, but affectionate, look, and used her fingers to count off the answers to his questions.
‘Firstly, this is a cottage, probably a keeper’s cottage.’ ‘How can you tell?’ Sarah merely pointed to the hooks suspended over the porch entrance and said, ‘I think those are for hanging game, and these-‘, pointing to a meat cleaver and some sharpened knives, ‘-are for cutting them up with.’ This caused Giles to look at his soup as if it were poisoned. Sarah smiled. ‘I can only taste vegetables in this’, she said. With relief, Giles applied himself with renewed vigour to his meal, and spluttered, ‘Carry one’ to her as he did so.
‘As I was saying,’ she said, ‘this cottage is probably somewhere far away from a big city, since it took us over an hour to get here. Someone has paid for us to get out of the children’s home, and I would think this is where we should stay for the meantime, as at least we have somewhere to eat and sleep, but I don’t know for how long. Those two looking after us are probably the gamekeeper and his wife, but we haven’t seen her yet. At least we’re always warm here. It’s terribly cold outside, and I didn’t see any other houses for miles.’
Giles snorted. ‘I want to go to bed. I’m tired.’ At that second, two sets of footsteps were heard along the corridor, and loud, raised voces, arguing. Sarah urgently whispered, ‘Shh, and eat your soup.’ She hurriedly started hers, only dropping her spoon with a clatter as the door crashed open.