And so, for another month or so, Giles and Sarah’s days settled into a regular pattern: an early breakfast, a long walk, maybe punctuated by a bout of fishing, then lunch (during which, one day, a large supply of clothes appeared), after which the Ashers would retire to drink, whereas the children would sit in the kitchen for a while to let their lunch go down, then make for a treehouse that had been hastily constructed in the shedding branches of an enormous sycamore tree situated at the foot of a long, barren, wood-strewn field. Then it was time for tea, which the Ashers would prepare under protest after waking up with terrific hangovers, and then either in front of the hearth or in their bedrooms, Giles and Sarah would spend the evening. Sarah had found a pine bookcase filed with dog-eared children’s books and a few volumes of Dickens. She read the entire collection twice.
Mr. Asher snored in a dusty armchair until half past ten, then he and his wife would retire for the night. When the children heard the click of the latch that marked the evening’s end, for fear of annoying their keepers, they would do the same. For Sarah, the late afternoons following tea were almost always spent staring at the fireplace from the vantage point of the window seat, trying desperately to reconstruct that face, half seen, half glimpsed. Who or what had it been?
Then it came towards the completion of the Advent cycle. Christmas was drawing near to the children. It had never ceased to exercise a glow of warmth and hope in their hearts. Even in the children’s home, that grim place of scientific misery, it had always been a special time, the one high spot in an otherwise glum year. They always looked forward to the tree, the lights, the tinsel, and the fact that the food tasted as though it had been cooked. For once.
At the cottage, however, a new order prevailed. The Ashers increasingly spent the best part of the old year drowning it in alcohol and over-indulging in the pantry’s contents. Consequently, the nearer it got to the festive season, the less likely it seemed to the children that any goodwill (or food) would be left to go around.
But there was something else. The constant arguments, which had always been an accompanying feature of the Ashers’ presence, stopped. In fact, they stopped speaking to each other-at least, not in front of the children. Meals were served in sobering silence, and the laundry done when the children were elsewhere. ‘What’s the matter with them?’, said Giles one day after the children had shared yet another sparse lunchtime. ‘Christmas is in four days’ time, and these two are mooching around as if they’re being sent off to market. We haven’t even been taken to church since we got here.’ This last comment reflected the fact that they had always been deeply religious: in fact, Sarah still had a tiny black Bible given to her by a kindly priest who had visited the children’s home one Sunday morning. ‘Why don’t we find one for ourselves, Soz? Even churches are in the back-end of beyond, like this cottage’ (for they seemed to be miles from anywhere, and had seen no-one save the Ashers). ‘If we walk far enough, I’m sure we’ll find one!’ Sarah hesitated, but in that brief instant, the silence was shattered by a loud roar emanating from the passageway, and a crash, as ther door to the kitchen was flung open by Growler. His face glowed red like a bonfire: it was obvious that he had been drinking even more heavily than usual, and Mrs. Asher was swaying behind him at his shoulder, in her habitual stance of arms akimbo. Both looked shabby and in a pitiful state of filth.
Growler’s fist crashed on the table in a hell-sent thunderbolt.
‘We’ve ‘ad enough, you ‘ear me?’ he bawled. ‘Enough of looking after yez! Cooking. cleaning, all the lot! From now on, ye can do it all yersels! You ‘ear me?’
Giles and Sarah rose and stood together, but with less an attitude of fear than one of corporate defiance of their shabby guardians. As quickly as the man’s anger had flared, it subsided, and the pair turned their backs and gently closed the kitchn door on the children. Their double set of footsteps could be heard all the way down the hall, but not a further sound did they utter until their respective rooms were reached.
To Giles and Sarah, this had far more of an effect than any beatings ever could. A cold, intangible atmosphere of menace hung over te entire cottage. ‘Soz!’ Giles breathed, his face having regained some of its former colour. ‘What are they going to do to us?’ Sarah shook her head. ‘I don’t know Giles, but I don’t want to stay around here to find out. Let’s go and find that church you seem to be sure exists.’ On their way out, the children noticed Growler loading boxes into the back of his horse trap: luckily, Growler did not see them. Giles did not see anything odd in this, since Growler had regularly gone out to get food and provisions from somewhere, but Sarah was perturbed, although she said nothing to her brother, to see Mrs. Asher helping Growler, something she had never done before.
Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije: Troika (vocal version)