Even before they entered the seaside cottage on the Isle of Wight, Jill had thought something a mite off. So off, in fact, that she sent the agreement for the holiday letting to Edmund before they signed it for the month of August.
Edmund telephoned back right away. "It is odd. I had one of the real estate chaps look at it. Usually, these agreements are intended to make you liable for every speck of damage."
Jill knew about those. Forfeiting deposits for broken furniture, smashed crockery, and crushed vegetable gardens were the sorts of things one became accustomed to with two young children. When traveling with the Pevensies and their marauding horde, they just wrote a large cheque for damage in advance, as evictions and visits by local constables were not uncommon.
"But this one holds us responsible for nothing at all," Jill said.
"Right. In fact, you agree to hold the letting company harmless for any damage. No! Helen! Put that back! Zack get down!" Edmund shouted.
Edmund's family cat, Zack, was a monstrous marmalade with a squashed face and prodigious appetite and little Helen was fond of dressing him in doll clothing and covering him with sellotape. Jill heard crying – Zack had probably just eaten Helen's biscuits.
"Sorry, Jill. One thing. Has someone looked at the house? Perhaps it is derelict or unsafe?"
"One of Eustace's colleagues is working a site on the Island. He drove over and didn't see anything peculiar. He said it was very nice and convenient to a beach and a dig Eustace intends to work. The cottage is for sale."
And then there was a loud crash and Edmund had to ring off.
"I don't know why you are worried," Scrubb said, being infuriatingly male about it all. "We have a great rate. If it's truly terrible, we can find a caravan or camp out."
If it had been just the two of them, it would have been no concern. But they now had two children and Harold and Alberta were coming as well, to babysit whilst Jill joined Scrubb to photograph and sketch the Wight site he was investigating and record any fossils he found. Lucy had thought her mad to share a house with her mother and father in law, but age and grandchildren had mellowed Harold and Alberta. They were prodigiously proud of Scrubb's scientific achievements, and carefully kept on a wall in their home clippings of all his discoveries and the species he had identified and pictures of the one that had been named for him, species Scrubb of the genus Draco.
Scrubb got on with his parents better than he ever had since before Narnia. They did like her and Scrubb's vegetarian cooking so much they made no rude comments about the occasional meat at all. They enjoyed the pineapple wine she and Scrubb had developed a taste for after that diplomatic mission gone awry on Halua, six years into Rilian's reign. Enough pineapple wine and any problem became less troublesome. Harold and Alberta genuinely loved their grandchildren and Riley and Lily enjoyed them. Jill found she was only gritting her teeth once or twice a day when they visited.
Still, it was a long day to get to the Isle of Wight, train to ferry to train and bus before the six of them all stood with their suitcases on the front walk of the cottage. During the trip, Harold had complained more than the children had.
"It doesn't look the least bit haunted," Scrubb said cheerfully.
It was very a attractive place, more genuine house than cottage, and far larger than the brochure had indicated. Jill's wariness increased. If it's too good to be true, it probably is.
They had picked up the key at the letting office down the street and the girl had been helpful, kind, and peculiar. "If it doesn't work out for you, just leave the key in our box. You'll forfeit your first week but we'll refund the rest."
"I'll just have a look around," Jill said. "You all wait here."
"I'll come with you." Alberta took the key from Scrubb's hand and marched up to the front door that was painted a bright, very distinctive blue.
The lock was well-oiled and the door swung open. Nothing untoward came out. There were no awful stenches or sounds of scurrying insects or rodents.
Reasserting her prerogative, Jill said, "Alberta, why don't you look upstairs? I will check downstairs."
There was nothing the least bit unpleasant. Indeed, it was very much the nicest letting Jill had been in. There were kitchen towels, tissue, salt and pepper, and tins of tea and coffee. The copper pots were bright and burnished. She always traveled with her own kitchen knives but the ones in the block were sharp enough that she'd want to keep them from Riley and Lily. The water that came through the kitchen tap was not brown or smelly. The plumbing and drains were fine. The sitting room had a radio that worked and the hearth was swept.
She heard Alberta's steady footsteps upstairs and the sounds of water running and shutting off. "The beds are all made! Towels are in the bath!" There was a big thumping, WHAM WHAM. "Just testing the floorboards!"
Jill was relieved that Alberta did not crash through them in her vigorous jumping up and down.
"All clear?" Scrubb said from the door, then had to duck to the side as Riley and Lily barreled by him squealing and ready to jump on the furniture.
"Fine," Jill replied with a shrug.
When she went to the grocer the next day, everyone was very nice and winked when they heard they had let the Blue Door Cottage for the month. "Nice house," the butcher said. "Not for everyone though."
"Why is that?" Jill pressed. "Is it dangerous?"
"Dangerous! No!" The butcher wrapped up the sausages and smiled. "It's just famous around here, is all. Everyone's got a story about the Blue Door Cottage."
The clerk who weighed the fruits and vegetables smiled fondly, too. "I liked the second floor yellow bedroom best, myself."
"First floor lavatory," the cashier said with a giggle. "Or maybe the pantry."
As she pushed the groceries back to the cottage in the cart, Jill noticed that a large ginger cat was following. She did not try to shoo it away and as it continued to trail her steps, she turned around. "Aslan? Is that you?"
But if the Lion of former Narnia had been there, he was now gone.
Jill hurried the rest of the way to the cottage and carefully inspected the first floor lavatory, the second floor bedroom, which had been given over for Lily and Riley's playroom, and the pantry.
It wasn't ominous, exactly. Nothing felt the slightest bit evil. But something was different.
After dinner, Harold and Alberta took the children up to get ready for bed. As she and Scrubb started the wash-up, she whispered, "Do you feel it, Scrubb?"
He nodded and rubbed the back of his neck and moved his shoulders about, as if remembering the wings that had once sprouted there. "I think it's Magic, Pole. In the house. And I think Aslan is about."
"You saw him too?"
"Saw whom?" Alberta said, startling them both.
"A big, ginger Cat," Scrubb said. Jill could hear the slightly different enunciation.
"Harold said he saw a cat in the garden. The children were playing with it."
Jill glanced at Scrubb. He ran his hand across his face. She wasn't sure how she felt about this. They were so young – and were the same age as Lucy and Edmund had been when they first went to Narnia-that-was.
Alberta went to the cupboard and took out a glass. "Riley wanted some milk before bed."
"Did the cat do anything?" Scrubb asked, sounding a little strained as Jill poured the milk for their son.
Alberta provided the worst possible report. "Harold chased it away." She left the kitchen with the glass of milk and they heard her walk slowly up the stairs.
Jill opened the pantry to put the salt away and got a blast of sea spray in the face. She quickly shut the door again. "Scrubb?"
They again opened the pantry door, more slowly, and took a step back.
"Well, we did want a seaside holiday," Scrubb finally said.
The water was a lovely shade of pink and the sand a bright blue that matched the colour of the front door of the cottage.
Jill couldn't say she was really surprised when Alberta shrieked and they heard the sound of a glass breaking on the floor. At least they weren't responsible for the damage.
They slammed the pantry door shut and raced upstairs to the yellow bedroom.
Alberta was clinging to the doorframe, dumbstruck, shocked, and windblown as brisk, salty air breezed through the room.
"Mama! Papa!" Lily cried, leaping about the bedroom like a rabbit. Their daughter was much browner than she had been when she'd come upstairs for bed a few minutes ago and her nightdress was in tatters. Lilly began yammering in French, what Jill thought was a very archaic French she vaguely recognized from linguistics and travel in the Caribbean.
Riley jumped from the bed, gleefully crowing, "AIYAAAH!" Eustace caught him under the arms and carefully relieved their son of the pirate cutlass that was too sharp and shiny to be a cheap tat at an island souvenir shop.
Jill looked under the bed just as Harold crawled out from under it, looking very dazed, badly sunburnt, and holding a bottle of what smelled to be high quality rum. A large lobster, that would make very good eating, was clamped onto his ragged trousers.
"Harrumpphrmwwww," Harold muttered, swaying on his feet. He tipped back the bottle and took a hefty swallow.
Lucy did always say that Aslan had a sense of humour. They would warn Harold in the future to not badger large, ginger cats that loitered about the house.
"There's a volcano under the bed," Alberta said weakly.
"I wouldn't get too close, Alberta, unless you are ready for an adventure," Jill told her.
Scrubb twirled the cutlass, looking very dashing, and Riley and Lily clapped and cheered – in archaic French. Jill hoped the language would wear off in a little while.
"I suppose that's settled then, isn't it?" Scrubb said with an artful lunge and slash. Jill had forgotten how nice her husband looked with a sword.
"I shall speak to the agency tomorrow about purchasing the cottage." Jill peered under the bed, and then carefully smoothed the bedcover down and the sounds of waves and seabirds winked out. The volcano might be a problem but surely there were other places to explore in the archipelago with pink water and blue sand -- somewhere where Scrubb could get his own cutlass, a tan, snug, red leather trousers, and a billowy shirt that opened to the waist. Perhaps the first floor lavatory went to a different place? They would have to check before bed.
"May I?" she asked and Harold handed her the bottle with a rakish grin.
Jill wondered if that now missing tooth of his would grow back. She tilted the bottle back and enjoyed the finest liquor she'd tasted since Halua. She supposed she would have to wire all the Pevensies about the discovery.
But maybe not for a few days…