The Griffins of Castle Cary
If you know much about ghosts, you’ll know that waiting is one of the things a ghost does best. Ghosts have the patience of eternity.
Each April the ghost stirred. It coughed, cried, and blew its nose, then rose to the surface. April is an in-between season, a time when cracks split open along the ancient path from winter to summer, from death to life. A time when accidents might happen.
This year the ghost dislodged a beetle from its ear and wafted up to the walnut tree. There it settled in a crook of branches. Leafless twigs scraped, the buds on the brink of bursting: poised, silent, and swollen.
This ghost was waiting for someone.
Someone to whisper to.
Someone to treasure.
It was waiting for a child.
“Nothing but sheep,” said Will, his nose squashed against the train window. “Look at them! What are we going to do for a whole week? What if the Griffinage doesn’t have a piano?”
“Whistle,” said his sister Meg. “That’s what you always do.”
“Very funny,” said Will.
Meg and Will Griffin were constant companions and a little less than a year apart. Meg’s hair was golden brown and curly. Very curly. Her hair was a mass of tightly coiled curls that bounced around her head when she ran. She had light tan skin, so light most people assumed Meg and her siblings were white, though the Griffins were a mixed race family.
Will was nearly as tall as Meg, with longish blond-brown hair that combed straight, and a wide grin that seemed too big for his cheekbones. Meg was eleven and Will was ten, but every November after Will’s Halloween birthday, they were the same age for seven weeks. Then Will would joke: “We’re twins, Megs! I’m as old as you.”
Meg glanced over at Ariel. She’d formed a nest from their pile of coats, and was sitting cross-legged among them, poking in her crayon box. Ariel was five. She was what strangers called “adorable,” which meant she had enormous brown eyes, and dark wavy hair that cascaded
to her waist and was clipped with bows. Right now her left bow was sliding partway down to her ear, and she was trying to draw a picture as the train jostled along. “My red’s gone,” said Ariel.
“Use purple,” said Will.
“But I need red,” Ariel continued. “Red’s for his tongue. He can’t have a purple tongue.” As usual, Ariel was drawing animals with round heads, stick legs, and impossibly large tails.
Meg sighed. She didn’t mind helping Ariel, but she’d already rescued the green crayon from the floor twice, and dug out sienna from the seat crack. They’d only been on the train from London for ten minutes. If Ariel kept losing crayons at this rate . . . Let’s see, it was nearly a two-hour ride to Castle Cary and Aunt Effie’s house, so four crayons every ten minutes, that meant four times twelve, or forty-eight spilled crayons.
“Look on the floor,” said Meg.
Ariel looked, but tipped the crayon box as she did, threatening to spill what remained of the sixty-four colors.
“There,” said Meg, righting the box and retrieving the red from under the sleeve of Will’s coat. “Now keep track of it, and color by yourself.”
Meg stood up to change seats, but Ariel’s hand flew out to stop her.
“Don’t go, Meg,” said Ariel.
Meg gently pried off her sister’s hand. She wanted to talk to Will. It was a relief to know Aunt Effie would be taking care of Ariel once they reached the Griffinage. Mama always asked them both to look after Ariel, but it usually fell on her. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m only moving a few inches.”
Ariel slumped into the coat pile, but Will looked up as she sat down next to him.
“Nothing but sheep,” Will repeated, tapping the window.
“What do you think he’s like?” Meg asked.
“Who?” said Will.
“You know who,” said Meg.
She knew what was bothering Will. It was the same thing she was worried about. Staying at the Griffinage with Aunt Effie would be a treat. She was the sort of grown-up who believed in ice-cream cones every day and staying up late. Their favorite aunt. She’d come to see them countless times in Minnesota, and now, finally, they would get to see where she lived in England. Will could probably even play a neighbor’s piano, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Uncle Ben.
“Why didn’t anyone tell us about Uncle Ben before?” Will demanded, flopping back on his seat. “If he’s married to Aunt Effie, you’d think we’d have heard of him at least.”
“Maybe they’re not married,” said Meg. “You know, maybe he’s her boyfriend or something and Dad just wants us to call him ‘uncle.’ ”
“We still should have heard of him,” said Will. “I’ll bet he’s a recluse.”
“You mean like a hermit?”
“Yeah,” said Will. “Maybe he doesn’t like to be around other people.”
“Or maybe he can’t get out of bed or something,” said Meg. “Why else would Aunt Effie have to take care of him?”
“He’s probably a grump,” said Will. “I bet he sits around the house and bangs his cane and we’ll never have any fun. I thought it was just going to be Aunt Effie. This changes everything.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Meg.
“You know it does,” said Will. “You’re scared of him, too.”
Until that very day, the Griffin children had never heard of Uncle Ben. When their parents talked about the Griffinage, it was always Aunt Effie. Aunt Effie who called. Aunt Effie, who sent her love. Aunt Effie, who mailed them books and chocolates wrapped in red tissue paper on their birthdays. Aunt Effie’s last name was Griffin too. That’s why the house was called the Griffinage. “If a vicar lives in a vicarage, and an orphan
lives in an orphanage, then a Griffin should live in a Griffinage,” she proclaimed. “Much better than a house number, don’t you think?”
Being Griffins, the children had always longed to see the Griffinage. But a Griffinage with Aunt Effie in it, not an unknown uncle. When Mama announced the news about their extra-long spring break—you’ll have to miss a week of school, Dad and I will be away at the geology conference, and you three will stay at the Griffinage—nobody mentioned Uncle Ben.
“The Griffinage!” said Will. “Cool!”
“It’ll be like living in our own family castle,” said Meg.
“Hardly,” said their father, who’d been there before. “You’re not staying in the manor itself, you know. The Griffinage is a house, and the only true castle in Castle Cary is in ruins.”
“But, still,” said Meg, and she walked away to dream of castles with emblems of gryphons on the front door.
Mama sent away for passports. Ariel asked a million questions. Dad found his favorite rock-hound pants. Meg looked up Castle Cary and its county, Somerset, on the map, and Will packed and repacked his duffel bag.
“Save room for clothes,” said his mother, examining the contents of his duffel. “Yes, Will, more than two pairs of underwear.” Then she retreated to the
basement again, where she and their father, both geology professors, spent hours preparing for the conference by writing speeches with words like “geomorphology,” “petrology,” and “paleoarchaeology.”
Maybe it was the “ologies” that distracted the Griffin parents. Somehow it wasn’t until the family arrived at Paddington Station, and the train to Somerset was inching up to its platform, that their father stopped midsentence (the full sentence was “When I was a boy, I rode trains at age eight without my parents,” but he stopped at “rode,” which didn’t matter because the children had heard the story so many times before). Then he said something new and surprising: “See if you can help out with Uncle Ben. Aunt Effie will have enough on her hands taking care of you lot.”
“Uncle Ben?” said Will, his mouth agape.
“Who’s Uncle Ben?” asked Meg, just as the train whistle blasted. Why did grown-ups keep repeating old stories instead of explaining new things kids really wanted to know? Mama was bustling about, gathering luggage, kissing Ariel, and herding them toward the train platform. There wasn’t much time. Hurriedly, Meg asked: “What’s he like?”
“Oh, you’ll meet him soon enough,” said their father. “Uncle Ben is one of a kind.”
“But . . . ,” said Will.
“Listen up now,” said their father. “You get off at Castle Cary. I’ve talked to the conductor, and he’ll tell you when the station comes up.”
“But what about Uncle Ben?” Will asked.
“What about him?”
“Will Uncle Ben be there too?”
“No idea,” said their father. “I don’t think she always brings him to a place like the train station. So many people and the noise, you know.”
Will gulped. If this uncle didn’t like people, and he didn’t like noise, he surely wouldn’t like children. This would be a terrible vacation.
“Does he drool?” Will asked.
His father gave him a strange look. “Well, sometimes. I suppose he can’t help it.”
The children spotted Aunt Effie right away at the Castle Cary train platform. She still sported a head of springy curls exactly like Meg’s, the afternoon sun shining through her outer curls like a halo, and if that left any doubt about who she was, she was waving wildly in their direction.
Will scanned the platform to see if he could spy a drooling man propped up in a wheelchair with a cane between his legs. He saw Meg searching too, though trying to pretend she wasn’t. No, it was just Aunt Effie who had come to the train station. The Castle
Cary stop was small and nearly deserted. “Guess he’s not here,” Will whispered, amid Aunt Effie’s shouts of “hallo” and hugs of welcome. Ariel was smiling now, basking in Aunt Effie’s attention.
“Shh,” said Meg. “Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not being rude, I’m just stating a fact,” said Will.
“Well, whispering’s rude,” whispered Meg.
By now, Aunt Effie had Ariel’s hand in hers and was headed to the car park. She approached a tiny golden-yellow-colored car. Will couldn’t help staring. At home, this little car would fit inside their family minivan. He eyed the pile of luggage dubiously. “Will we all fit?”
“Never underestimate a Mini,” answered Aunt Effie. “You should see what I can jam in this creature. Why, in Japan they once fit twenty-one people inside. The world record for people in a Mini is held by the Pilobolus Dance Company in the States: twenty-six people! In the newer model, of course. More legroom. Did you know Pilobolus is the Latin name for a fungus? Grows on cow manure and shoots off ballistic spores like a cannon. Funny name for a dance company, isn’t it?” She paused and stooped down to help Ariel, who’d tripped on the curb and spilled half her crayons. Meg grabbed two that had rolled under the Mini’s back tire. When the crayons were back in the box, Aunt Effie grinned at Will, who was still holding his duffel. “Chuck it in the boot, love. Right. Off we go!”
The Griffinage cottage looked lovely and quaint at first sight, just like the painting on their mother’s shortbread cookie tin. The Mini bounced to the end of the dirt drive, and they all tumbled out.
“Oooh!” said Meg and Ariel at the same time.
The front door was bright red and child-sized—so low, adults would need to duck. The roof was thatched. No shingles in sight, simply bundles of straw stacked like a mat. This thick thatch spread over the cottage like a warm blanket, swooping over the upstairs windows so the window panes could peer out. Like eyes, Will thought. Perched on top of it all was a fox-shaped weather vane.
“Call me Mrs. Thatcher!” Aunt Effie laughed and glanced at the children, who looked back puzzled. “Never mind. Before your time. Welcome to the Griffinage! Held together by Sellotape, I’m afraid,” she added. “The thatch looks pretty, but squirrels muck about and it leaks a bit.”
“It’s a Goldilocks house,” exclaimed Ariel.
“You mean the bears’ house,” said Will. “The bears lived there, not Goldilocks.”
“Right you are, Will,” said Aunt Effie. “Come and meet the bear!”
Will, who’d begun to feel better in Aunt Effie’s company, felt his throat tighten, and he jammed his hands in his pockets. If Aunt Effie called him “the
bear,” Uncle Ben must be really bad. Aunt Effie sailed up the walk, picking up a suitcase and tucking Ariel’s hand in hers.
“All this is Griffin land,” she continued, setting the suitcase down again, and sweeping one arm out toward rows and rows of fruit trees beside them. “The orchard—damsons, plums, apples—and all the way out to the pastures. See that stone wall? That’s the back border, so you’ll have plenty of room to roam. Of course, those stones haven’t always been a wall. Once they were part of the glory of the Roman Empire! Imagine that. The Fosse Way runs through here, a road the Romans built when they invaded England two thousand years ago, but after the Romans marched out, people gradually plundered the stones to build cow barns and wells, and these particular stones got stuck in a wall. How’s that for the fall of an empire?”
Will gaped at the Griffinage garden, with its flower beds, hedges, wall that used to be an ancient road, and rows of fruit trees. He couldn’t even see the full extent of the stone wall, the property was so big. Aunt Effie, by now, had reached the red door, and bent low by habit. Will hurried to catch up. The front door was the right size for him, and he entered the Griffinage with six inches to spare.
“Bring your bags upstairs,” Aunt Effie called over her shoulder. “We’ve got bangers and mash for supper, and
I expect you’re ravenous.” Bangers and mash? thought Will. It sounded a bit like dog food.
“Don’t people in England eat pretty much the same food as people in the US?” he asked. Aunt Effie and Ariel were already past the slate entryway and halfway up the stairs, Ariel chattering all the way. Will and Meg climbed after them.
“Pretty much, dear,” Aunt Effie said. “Will, you’re in the front room. You girls are back here in the east room.” She showed them a room with a tremendously tilted ceiling. “Can’t wear a hat in here,” she said, ducking her own head. “You lot should be fine, though, if you promise to grow at the normal pace.”
Before them they saw a crooked room with two beds, one just a folding cot. The ceiling seemed to have a desire to become a floor, for it slanted downward at a reckless angle. Meanwhile, the floor tilted upward, as if to meet it. Tucked around the corner was an alcove, a stray piece of the room with its own miniature window. Ariel ran to it. She ducked in and skipped back out, saying: “Oh, can I sleep in the cubby?”
“In here? Well, I suppose,” said Aunt Effie. “I thought you’d want to be closer to Meg.” She bent double as Ariel dragged her into the tiny space.
“Please, please. This could be my own little house,” begged Ariel.
Aunt Effie answered by pushing the cot into the
corner spot. It fit perfectly, as if designed for a small child’s bed. Ariel spun around in delight.
Will joined Meg, who’d drifted over to the window, her eyes fixed on an enormous tree in the back garden. Leaves sprouted from the other trees, but this one was still leafless, and its bare branches reached toward the house like human arms.
“That’s the walnut tree,” said Aunt Effie, coming up behind them. “Old as the hills. Well, not really,” she amended hastily. “How can I say that with two geologists in the family? Glad your parents aren’t here to hear me. The Mendip Hills themselves are three hundred million years old. That tree’s old all the same.”
“Must be a hundred,” ventured Meg.
“Oh, much older than that, my dear,” said Aunt Effie. “That walnut has stood there for ages. Might live to three hundred, I should think. It’s withstood many a storm.”
Downstairs, the Griffinage kitchen greeted them with wafts of sausage, its savory smell mixed with other mouthwatering scents, like fresh bread and hot chocolate. Aunt Effie dodged about, bringing steaming plates to the table. The table itself was built into the wall at one end, and instead of chairs, high-backed wooden benches ran along its sides, reminding the children of church pews or benches at grand railway stations. At
the head of the table stood a single chair. Must be for Uncle Ben, Will thought. Since Aunt Effie had asked him to set the table, he set out five plates.
“Expecting somebody?” asked Aunt Effie, coming up with a pot of mashed potatoes. “Who on earth is the extra place for, Will?”
“Um, I thought Uncle Ben might be hungry,” said Will.
“Oh, goodness me!” exclaimed Aunt Effie. “He won’t be coming to the table.” Will blushed and busied himself with straightening his silverware. Who was this strange uncle? Was he so odd that he couldn’t eat with them?
“Now, let me see, where can he have got to?” Aunt Effie plopped the pot down. She poked her head down the hall. “Ben!” she hollered, then yelled again at the back door: “Ben! Come and meet the family!” Will braced himself against the bench. Beside him, he heard Meg gasp. Their mother never yelled at their father like that. Well, there was nothing to do now but meet him.
The back door pushed open and revealed a large brown foot. Not a shoe, not at all. The next moment, a creature lumbered in. He was a mountain of a dog, a huge, shaggy beast, with folds of skin wrapped around his sturdy neck like a lion’s mane. He moved the way a mountain might move, and each leg ended with a massive bearlike paw. He was entirely brown.
“A giant chocolate dog!” cried Ariel, and was out of her seat in an instant.
“Ah yes, Uncle Ben,” said Aunt Effie. Her voice softened, and her gaze lingered on the big, brown dog. “Uncle Ben, come meet your nieces and nephew.”
Will stared as relief poured through him. “Oh,” he said, and then “oh” again. He might have kept on saying “oh” the rest of the evening if Meg hadn’t elbowed him.
“So that’s the ‘bear,’ ” Meg said.
“Or the ‘man of the house,’ ” said Aunt Effie, as Uncle Ben politely sniffed them one by one. “He’s so big he feels like a person, so I call him ‘Uncle.’ Where were you, Ben? Usually, you’re underfoot and greet us at the door, you great clown. What were you doing out by the walnut? Didn’t you know the children were here?”
Ariel was kneeling by Uncle Ben, nuzzling her head in the thick fur folds by his shoulders. “I love him, Aun’ Effie,” Ariel said. “He’s the most biggest dog I’ve ever seen. Can he be mine for always?”
“Well, dearie, he’s yours for the week, while you’re here at the Griffinage. All of yours,” she said, sweeping her hand around the table to include the others. “Uncle Ben will adopt you like puppies, I predict. Just like the Nana dog in the book Peter Pan with Wendy, John and Michael. Nana was a Newfie too, you know—a Newfoundland dog.”
Uncle Ben lifted his enormous head at her words
and thumped his tail. Aunt Effie pushed the pot of mash in Will’s direction. Despite its name, bangers and mash turned out to be delicious—sausage and potatoes, slathered in gravy.
Will scooped out a second serving. He ate slowly, soaking in the comfort of being in a thatched cottage with a full belly, newly acquainted with an uncle who was a dog.
“If you kids ever get into trouble,” said Aunt Effie, “just look for Uncle Ben. These Newfies are known for saving children. Great protectors. Though, come to think of it, Nana was no match for flying children. Still, I don’t expect any flying in and out of windows here. As I told your father back in January, ‘What possible trouble can the kids get into? You just leave them with me, Davy, and go off with Marie following those rocks of yours. No worries. It’s quiet as a graveyard here in Somerset.’ ”
“Oh, doggie,” said Ariel. She was now on the floor with Uncle Ben, nuzzling deep into his mammoth neck. “You’re the nicest uncle ever!”
“Well,” said Meg. “That’s the end of our mystery.”
But, of course, she was wrong. It was only the beginning.