Eight boxes . . . it was only the first layer. There was an identical wall of boxes behind the first, and there would be another wall behind that. I may have whimpered. All right, wait. First eight boxes successfully accomplished. I wasn’t dead yet and the van was a whole layer emptier. Two layers, if you counted the rose-bush, the sofa, and some of the fruits of my two trips to the Majormojo Mall. The rose-bush was okay where she was but if I wanted to count the rest I needed to lug it up those villainous stairs.
I looked gloomily at the sofa. Well, it would make a change.
I will spare you the details. There was some shouting when, having hooked one of the legs over the railing and nearly pulled the stair out from under my own feet I staggered up the last steps rather too fast in recoil and got wedged under the porch roof. I hoped Hayley was right that my neighbours were never there. I was not making a good impression. And I’d really rather they never saw the van at all. Merry was going to be shock enough.
What I needed was a cup of tea. Supposing I could find my tea-making gear.
I could. Amazingly. As I groped around in the dark van, one of the boxes on top of the freshly revealed wall of pain rustled faintly when I pulled at it. It weighed nearly as much as any of the others, but its contents were clearly not solid and rectangular. You’d think I might have labelled them, wouldn’t you? But it hadn’t seemed necessary. They were almost all books.
Cautiously I opened this one. Inside was a lot of newspaper, bubble wrap, pots, pans, two china teapots and . . . tea. Hallelujah.
I wrestled my find up the stairs and into the kitchen, and slid it gratefully onto the no-bending-over-necessary table. Then I positively trotted down those wretched stairs to the van again. I gathered up an armful of plastic bags containing t shirts and underwear before they started scampering away across the landscape—there was a wind picking up, although it didn’t seem to be blowing the clouds away—grabbed the apples and chocolate and as much of the dog stuff as I could and elbowed the van doors shut. This time I felt rubbery going up the front steps. Which was an improvement on feeling like a ninety-five-year-old chain-gang escapee.
The next question was whether I could get water-boiling heat out of the college-dorm-reject stove. I looked at it dubiously. I turned one of the handles and there was a bogus clicking noise but I saw no spark and nothing lit. I sniffed. That was gas all right. I needed matches before striking one would make the kitchen explode. I found an elderly half-full box in one of the kitchen drawers, but the first six snapped without doing any more than making a faint match-striking-board smell. Arrgh.
Sid had followed me into the kitchen. The last time she saw plastic bags like these she’d had tuna and hash and cheese out of the situation. “In a minute,” I said. I went back out to the van, again blessing Mr Screaming Skull, and retrieved the matches from the glove box. I lit one of the burners. The flame was a little excitable, wanting to dance on the tabletop. I reproved it. It hissed at me. I turned the cold tap on and watched it spit and snarl and finally erupt in copper-colored semi-liquid. I pulled out my tea kettle and waited a little anxiously. I sidled closer to the now steadily, not to say sullenly, burning gas flame. When I wasn’t carrying boxes it was cold. Ugh. Even if Rose Manor had central heating I couldn’t pay for it. I would warm up one hand at a time over the gas burner. I glanced wistfully toward Caedmon, invisible in his shadowy alcove.
Sid was distracted from thoughts of cheese by the antics of the water supply. BLOOIE. POW. The sink shook. There was an ominous pause and then a blast like the last trump rattled the window. At the same time something that I hoped was only wind slammed into the back of the house. WHAM. Who needs Cthulhu in the cellar when King Kong is ripping the walls out? Sid barked. The wind was now having a go at prying the window sash off and—whackety-whackety-whackety slam—that was hail. And I still had 1,000,000,000 boxes of books to carry up a flight of outdoor stairs.
“If there’s a hob in earshot,” I said quaveringly, “I’d be very grateful for anything you can do. I’ll buy some milk when I go back in town. Unless you’d rather have a brownie. Er. The chocolate kind.”
Silence fell again, but Sid was still on alert and so was I. And then like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel, the pipes all over the house started serially banging in off key harmony. The furthest ones were first, so the sound got louder and closer. I hooked my fingers under Sid’s collar and tried not to whine. The bangs reached a crescendo, the long neck of the kitchen faucet trembled and . . . sparkling-clear water poured out.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
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