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Black Dog - Chapter 16

The hour of the tea party loomed large on the horizon. Olivia had contemplated hiding in her room for the duration of the event, but she ventured downstairs to see how the preparations were coming along, at least. Auntie Imogen had worked herself up into a flutter of happy nerves, rushed off her feet with a hundred last minute details to attend to before her guests arrived. She might have been slightly disappointed in Olivia's lack of enthusiasm for this (the very first social occasion of her afterlife!) but she ignored it just as she ignored the coating of dust, grime and cat hair covering the interior of the house. The silverware had to be polished, and the sandwiches made, and the cushions and antimacassars straightened in the drawing room.

Auntie Imogen watched critically as Verity emptied a packet of biscuits onto a plate. "No, no, no! You can't just pile them up like that," she fussed, ghostly hands reaching to interfere with the arrangement of biscuits but unable to touch them. "Presentation always helps to make a good first impression on your guests. I would expect you to know that. Oh, hello Olivia," she said, barely glancing in her niece's direction. "You do know where the teaspoons are, don't you, Verity dear?"

"Thank you, Imogen," said Verity, her voice sounding strained. "I do know where the teaspoons are." She grabbed a wine bottle from the kitchen counter and sloshed a glass almost full of dark red liquid, ignoring Imogen's look of disapproval.

"The best ones for our guests, please. On the left."

Verity opened the cutlery drawer. "These won't do at all. Imogen: they're silver." She raised her eyebrows at the ghost. "Werewolves, remember?"

"Well, then, the everyday ones will have to suffice. They're quite new, but... Hmm, How many cups do you have there?" Auntie Imogen peered over Verity's shoulder, so close she was almost leaning through her. "Do we have enough? Seven, yes?"

Without being asked, Olivia had started washing up the breakfast things, knowing from past experience it was best to look busy at times like this.

"You're not forgetting anyone?" asked Verity. "And you're not counting yourself or any of the other ghosts?"

"No, I'm getting the hang of this now. It's seven."

"I'm sure that's not right," said Verity, fortifying her patience with a sip of her drink.

"Oh! Silly me, I forgot to say. That blonde lady. You know, the, erm, the nurse. Greta?"

"You mean Grace?"

"That's right. She's bringing a friend."

Verity's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What kind of friend?"

Auntie Imogen flitted around the kitchen, checking on the refreshments for the hundredth time. "Her gentleman friend."

"Imogen, that's not what I meant and you know it."

"Oh, he's one of them." Auntie Imogen waved a hand dismissively. "You know, a werewolf."

She turned to see Verity looking cross and doubtful and about to say something, so she cut in sharply with, 

"And the others will just have to put up with it. I understand the awkward status of werewolves. Grace explained that to me quite clearly, having doubts about whether she would be welcome here. What you have to remember, you and Eli both, is that my niece is a werewolf too, and I still love her dearly. I won't tolerate any persecution of her in my house, and I expect you to extend the same courtesy to Grace and her young man while they're guests here."

Auntie Imogen drew a deep breath (or rather she appeared to) and looked at Verity expectantly.

"What I was going to say was," said Verity, " Isn't Grace's boyfriend the one who bit Olivia?"

"Oh." Auntie Imogen lowered her head, pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm a daft old bird, aren't I? Of course, yes." She lifted her head and sniffed. "But he was very apologetic on the telephone."

"You've spoken to him?" Verity interrupted, incredulous. "You managed to extract words out of that mousy little..."

"In all honesty, I think Grace forced him to talk to me. But it was an accident, wasn't it? And Olivia's bearing up so bravely."

"I feel fine, Auntie," said Olivia.

Auntie Imogen smiled fondly at her. "Such a brave girl."

Verity shrugged and leaned back against the kitchen counter. "From what I've heard, it does have some distinctly positive points. Not that I'd ever want to be a werewolf," she added, presumably in case Olivia took this as a cue to pounce and bite her. "Are you sure it's seven?" she asked Auntie Imogen.

"Hmm? No dear, it's only half past twelve."

"Teacups, Imogen. Teacups."

"What? Oh yes, I'm sure there are only seven who'll actually want food and drink. You and Olivia, of course. Grace and her young man, and Eli, and Jim, and then there's that zombie, Siobhan, did you say? Are you sure we want a zombie in the house?"

"It'll be fine," said Verity. "Jim's a zombie, and he's all right, isn't he? In his own way. Anyway, that makes seven," Verity had been counting the guests on her fingers. "But you're forgetting Theo. You haven't met him yet," she said, in response to Auntie Imogen's doubtful look. "Theo is, well, my young man. I hope you don't mind my inviting him. He might be quite late but he said he'd definitely be here."

"Oh, how lovely," said Auntie Imogen, quite forgetting about zombies. "One thing, though, and I don't mean to sound rude, Theo is dead, isn't he, dear?"

Verity nodded, taking another sip from her wine glass. "Definitely. I hardly ever socialise with the living. Theo's what you might call a vampire," she explained.

Auntie Imogen looked relieved. "And how long have the two of you been stepping out?"

Olivia had been trying to work up the nerve to ask Auntie Imogen about Uncle Constantin, but with no idea how long she'd have to wait for a gap in Verity's happy prattling, she decided to head out for a walk instead.

Deep in thought, she strolled down the narrow twisting country lanes, through a quiet world of fields and hedgerows, bare black trees rising through the mist of drizzle. She saw no one on her travels, as if the land had been deserted, and she returned an hour later grateful at the thought of coming home to a lively house. Puffing her way up the hill, she saw someone standing at the gate: a young blonde woman in a red coat, looking lost.

"Hello," Olivia called cheerily. "Are you all right there?"

Startled, the blonde looked round. "Oh, hello," she said, smiling like a Hollywood starlet, white teeth against red lips. "You're Olivia, aren't you?

My name's Grace."

"One of Imogen's new friends?" Olivia asked, taken aback at being recognised by this stranger.

"That's right. Pleased to meet you, Olivia." She offered a gloved hand.

"Erm, yes. And you." Hesitantly, Olivia shook her hand. She couldn't quite pin down what about this woman had made her suddenly wary. Perhaps it was only that she'd learned early on to be careful of beautiful girls with blonde hair and impeccable make-up.

"Is there something the matter?" Grace asked.

"No, nothing," said Olivia, shaking it off as best she could. "Imogen's made quite a few new friends lately and I'm..."

"A bit overwhelmed?" Grace guessed, with a sympathetic smile. "Oh, and you must be busy, you've obviously been dashing around all over the place and look at me, keeping you here talking."

Olivia blushed, feeling sweaty, pink and huge, her hair violently windswept. "No, I only went for a walk. I'm a bit out of shape, that's all." Then, for reasons quite beyond her understanding, she added, "I used to run cross-country when I was at school, but yes, I'm quite out of shape now." If she'd blinked she might have missed the look of disbelief that flickered across Grace's features, but she'd expected it. You ran? Really?

"What a coincidence!" said Grace instead. "I run too!" She looked at her watch. "But I'd best be going now. I said I'd meet my boyfriend in town before we came over, and I just wanted to check I'd remembered the address. I'll see you later, okay?"

"Oh, of course. Just before you go, do you mind if I ask a question?" Olivia wasn't quite sure how to put it. She moved closer in case anybody overheard. "You seem very nice, but you can see Auntie Imogen," she whispered.

Grace looked puzzled. "Of course I can."

"Well, what I mean is, I can't see the scenery through you. You don't look like you sleep in a crypt or anything. You look so… alive." She was going mad, that was it. Completely barking mad, and it was far more embarrassing than she would have expected.

But then it clicked, and Grace laughed. "Oh, no one told you, did they? You're not the only one with a black cloud over your head, Olivia. You know, a big black dog-shaped cloud?" She raised her eyebrows in an additional effort to communicate her meaning. "The old family curse?"

 

 

 

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