Chapter 2 - The Cellar
‘It’s not what you have on the outside that glitters in light, it’s what you have on the inside that shines in the dark.’
Dark Oak was a very large, very grey building. It had been an old country estate once but when the owners disappeared it had fallen into disrepair. Nobody knew who had bought it to create the orphanage. The day to day running was left to the Matron, Ms Krankle. The roof needed repaired and the windows and doors rattled when the wind blew. It was surrounded by a rotten old fence and the garden, if you could call it that, was overgrown with weeds and jaggy nettles. It sat in the middle of a bleak countryside. There were no other buildings in sight. A forgotten house in a forgotten place. A great place to hide something. Verity’s messenger last week had caused several problems. The week had gone much as usual except for a few key things.
One - The messenger had vanished from Verity’s room and seemingly left through the front door, which it then left open. Ms Krankle went crazy as the door was always locked at night and she kept the only key on a chain round her fat neck.
Two - Krankle suspected Verity was up to something and was now watching every move she made and if she wasn’t, one of her minions would be there, sneering and watching.
Three - The messenger hadn’t just left a note. It had reminded her of a feeling that Verity had hidden deep down within her. Far away inside her, behind a high wall, in a house with no doors, in a black room, hidden in a box locked with riddles. It was a feeling she tried to ignore but couldn’t. It burned in Verity’s heart and would not let her go. She did not feel complete. She had to escape from Dark Oak.
Lunch time. It was the usual scene, girls trudging in a slow but perfectly formed line while they waited for the cook, Mrs Pussle, to dole out whatever slop she had decided to mix that day. All this was overseen by Krankle and her minions. Krankle was very proud of her straight slow lines, the order of it all pleased her.
“STAND TALL! DON’T SLOUCH! LIFT YOUR SHOULDERS GIRL!”
She barked at the girls but didn’t need to. She had broken them all a long time ago. They were little obedient creatures and nobody wanted to incur the wrath of Krankle. Nobody except Verity. She looked at Krankle and saw everything she hated in people. Selfishness, spite, greed and cruelty. She thought Krankle was very ugly but not because of what she looked like but because of the things inside her.
Verity trudged in the line with everyone else. Frances was behind her.
“I heard that Sarah Peters said that Briony was out to get you.” she chittered excitedly. “Then, I heard that Gemma Winters was ready to stand up for you!”
“Oh, that's interesting,” Verity lied.
“Yes! and Emma Jackson said that she heard Krankle say she would find out who had been able to open the door and, and, and lock them away! Guess who is number one on her list!” said Frances wildly.
“Father Christmas?” smiled Verity.
“Father what…? No you dope it’s you!”
“I got that idea, thanks. I’m sure everything will be fine, now be quiet before we get caught whispering.” snapped Verity.
“TOO LATE!” screeched a voice from behind them, “Ms Krankle, oh Ms Krankle,” everything stopped. “I have a snotty little girl here who seems to think she is sooooooo much better than the rest of us and that it’s acceptable for her to break the rules!” Krankle’s minion sneered as she spoke.
Krankle was at the other side of the canteen. Her nasty gaze fixed on Verity’s location. “WELL, WELL, WELL! Which, dirty, little oily tick is it?” she bellowed. She knew full well who it was but wanted to deliver a little performance in front of everyone. She was delighted with the chance to punish Verity publicly. “This one here Ms Krankle!” the minion said excitedly. She poked out a crooked finger at Verity. The minions all looked the same, sharply pointed faces which looked old although not all of them were. Grey hair, tied back with grey hairpins, grey blouses, grey below the knee skirts, grey tights, grey shoes, grey socks and grey personalities. They were all terrified of Krankle. “OH MY, OH MY, oh my, what a shame,” Krankle’s voice was sickly as she spoke, “one of our little family has decided she is better than the rest of us, has she?” Verity stood calmly not taking her steely blue eyes away from the large beastly woman. “SHE, thinks she is better than all of us, does she?” Krankle’s face was becoming nastier with every word she spoke. “SHE, thinks she is so wonderful that we are all not worthy, does she! SHE, is so ungrateful for everything we have done for her that, SHE, wants to throw it back in our faces, DOES SHE!” Krankle’s words fired like bullets from her mouth.
“THEN SHE CAN BE LOCKED IN THE CELLAR!”
Gasps erupted round the canteen. Nobody dared to move. Verity had not reacted yet and stood still and calm. Verity was a humble girl and despite being in a place where there were few, her manners we important to her. She hated conflict, it always made her feel awkward so she avoided it but she also believed fiercely in the truth. She couldn’t help it; it was a feeling that came from deep inside. She sometimes wished she didn’t feel that way, it would make life easier, but she had to stand up for what was right. Krankle was not finished. “That is of course unless SHE wants to apologise,” by this time Krankle had made her way across the canteen and stood uncomfortably close to Verity. Krankle lent in and whispered, “If you beg in front of the hall, I will spare you.” Verity could feel her vile breath on her face, it smelt of fish. Krankle spoke to the room again, “If you can show how sorry you are, we MIGHT forgive you!” there was a pause. "Well?”
Verity looked at her. She knew what she should do. Keep her head down, apologise, steer clear of trouble, but something was bubbling within her. “WELL?” Krankle’s eyes flashed as she smiled manically.
“I was wondering,” began Verity.
“YES,” replied Krankle. turning to her audience, smiling, waiting for her victory.
“I was wondering…” Verity paused for what seemed like an age. Everyone held their breath.
“I was wondering why you think I would ever want to apologise to a dry old trout like you?”
Krankle was stunned into silence her eyes wide and her mouth gaped open. Wild chattering spread like wildfire around the canteen. The minions looked at each other unsure quite what to do.
Finally Krankle screamed, “SILENCE!” the room obeyed. "LOCK HER IN THE CELLAR!”
The way out of the cellar was through a hatch in the ceiling underneath which was a pull down ladder which Verity could not reach. Even if she could have reached, she was still stuck because Krankle had locked the hatch. Verity sat cross legged in the darkness. The floors and walls of the cellar were made of stone and it was largely empty other than an old rusty bike and some empty paint pots in the corner. Verity had seen these things just before Krankle had taken out the light bulb. Krankle thought she was being cruel but she didn’t know how at peace Verity was with the blackness. Verity was also not bothered by the rats that hurried and scurried, going about their business in the dark. She didn’t mind the damp musty smell that lingered in the air, but the cold was something Verity wasn’t so keen on, and the cellar was cold. She was annoyed. The messenger had lit a fire inside her. A fire that burned for the truth about her past. She didn’t remember anything before Dark Oak. She knew there must be something. She had planned to escape Dark Oak to find it. Now, she was stuck. She couldn’t even escape the cellar never mind anywhere else.
She got up and started to stretch her legs. She tripped over something and tumbled to the ground.
“Devon help us! Why don’t you watch where you is goin!” came a grumpy voice, “here I is minding me own beeswax and I gets tramply boots all over myself.” the voice seemed to be grumbling to itself. “A bit of quiet and peace is all I asks, can’t even tiddle on me toilet withouts somebodies botherin me bones. That’s the trouble with folky peeps now, no respect for old wrinkles like me.”
“Er, sorry.” Verity said sheepishly.
“Mmmmm, we is all sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” it grumbled.
A match flared and illuminated the small wrinkled face of what looked like a mole.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Now, where are you, where did I leaves you?” it muttered.
“You won’t find much in here I’m afraid.” Verity said.
“Here you is little waxy one!” the mole creature exclaimed. He lit a candle, which to Verity’s surprise was sitting on top of a dusty old bookcase crammed full of books. “Come little waxy ones,” the mole muttered as he went round and lit more candles. The room was now entirely illuminated except for the far corner. Verity could not believe her own eyes. The rusty bike and paint tins were no more and the bare room she had been in was full of bookcases that lined the walls top to bottom. They were all full to bursting with old dusty, cobwebby books that were all kinds of different colours. Reds, blues, browns, greens, purples and greys, they just went on and on.
“What is this place?” Verity said as much to herself as to the creature.
“You, me little girly peep, is in me Toiletery!” the moleman announced proudly.
Krankle moved down the corridor swiftly for such a large lady. She stopped at a brown wooden door with large iron hinges. She looked over both shoulders before pulling a small silver key from her pocket. The lock gave a satisfying clunk as she turned it. She looked over her shoulder again, pushed the door open and slipped in. Once inside she locked the door behind her then moved towards a small cauldron which sat at the other end of the room. The room had no windows and no furniture. It was only big enough for one, perhaps two people to sit comfortably in. She got down on her knees and pulled a match from her pocket. She struck it on the floor and threw it into the cauldron. Thick plumes of coloured smoke started rising from it. The smoke changed from red to green to orange then to black. Once black, it thinned and became wispy. A face started to appear in the centre. The room suddenly felt icy cold. Krankle started to speak, “Hail oh lord of all, Hail oh wonderful one,” her head was touching the ground.
The voice that came back was cold, it spoke slowly as if picking every word with care.
“What of the girl?”
“She is under control. I have seen to it personally, just as you asked oh great one.” Krankle’s voice was shaking.
“Where is she?”
“I have locked her away oh special one. Away safe so no-one will reach her.” Krankle sounded pleased with herself.
“Do you know she has already been visited?” the voice said.
“Impossible.” Krankle replied shakily.
“Are you a failure Krankle?” said the voice.
“No master.” Krankle whimpered.
“Failure is not an option with me,” it said slowly.
“I won’t let you down oh majestic one.”
“I believe you won’t. It is time.”
“Time for what my lord?” she asked.
The face in the smoke spoke four last chilling words.
“For her to die!”
Verity was sitting uncomfortably on an incredibly small chair holding a beautiful blue and white patterned china cup and saucer. “More coffee?” the moleman asked.
“No I’m fine thanks.” said Verity with a smile. Had she been given coffee, she might well have said yes, but after being given a cup of what seemed to be mud with dandruff sprinkled on top, she decided she wasn’t as thirsty anymore.
“I is still thinking why you has come to me. I means, most times I is alone in the dark, alone as an alone thing what has just won best prize in an alone test.”
“I don’t know why.” said Verity.
“You needs to squinkle up your coffee and tootle away back and fronts to where you came. I hasn’t got the times to be twittering to alls the little whatsypops what might winkle their ways to my hideyhole. Go on missy, off you tiddle.” The moleman turned his back and muttered something to himself about tiddlers not toddling old wrinkles or something like it. “Wait!” blurted out Verity. “I need to know the truth!” her voice was desperate. She knew she must have a past, a family. She knew she must have parents. She couldn’t remember them, couldn’t feel them, couldn’t feel anything. Yet the fire burned inside. Right now this little moleman was all she had. “Please!”
“Wonderings, happenings, we is all thinking we is special,” said the moleman as he shuffled towards the dark corner.
“Please!” Verity felt so lost inside.
“Goings and comings, isn’t we all learning we has our place,” it muttered.
“Please,” her voice seemed as small as it had ever been.
The moleman had nearly disappeared into the dark corner. “We has all got our troubles which is creakin our backs and bending our bones. We must busy on, yes yes, busy busy busy. We can’t all be sitting round waitin for Verity.” The moleman slipped into the blackness.
Verity flopped to the ground, cross legged and had her head in her hands. “How do you know my name?” she said through her fingers.
A small twitchy, whiskery nose poked out of the gloom. “What is you sayin girly peeps?”
“How do you know my name?” Verity repeated lifting her head.
The moleman reappeared. “You is Verity?”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“Oh my daisy aunt! By jingo and by lingo! Oh happy days and a lovely good pinch of salt!” the moleman cried excitedly. “Verity! My little girly peep!
The truth is savin us all!”
Frances had felt terrible ever since sneaking to Verity’s room a week ago. She felt as though it were all her fault. She never looked for trouble but it always seemed to find her. Today in the canteen had only made it worse. She thought the world of Verity. She looked at Verity and saw a girl who was prettier than most but never said it, in a world where being beautiful seemed to be the only goal. She saw a girl who tried hard to do the best thing, the right thing. She had never known anyone so strong, with nerves of steel yet never had a bad word to say about anyone. She also saw what most didn’t, the sadness that Verity carried. It was like a large weight sat squarely across her shoulders. What made Frances saddest of all was that Verity never laughed. Frances couldn’t see her best friend locked up. Especially not because of her. She knew where the cellar was but she didn’t have the key!
Krankle snored loudly. Her bedroom was grey and dull. One bed, one wardrobe, one grey rug, and one bedside table. “Anything else would just be an extravagance!” she would say.
Tonight, something else was in the room. One Frances! She crouched in the corner trying her hardest not to breathe too loudly. Her heart felt as though it might beat right out of her chest! She crept slowly towards Krankle’s bed on her hands and knees. The old boot snorted and spluttered as she slept. Frances inched her way to the bed. Krankle kept no secret of the fact she kept her keys on a chain round her neck. The key chain was lying on the bedside table. Next to the table lay a large, empty syringe. Frances crept closer. Krankle grunted loudly and rolled onto her side. Frances was right next to the bed now. Very slowly, she reached a small shaky hand out towards the keys. Her trembling fingers inched closer and closer. Krankle snorted and rolled over. Her flabby arm fell on top of the bedside table and the keys. A word appeared in Frances' head that didn’t make her feel proud! She saw the little key she wanted, the skeleton key. Matilda Tench had told her about it. Matilda had said that a skeleton key was a special key that opened many doors. This one had a small silver skull on the end. Her hands were trembling as she slid it off the key chain. Krankle snored loudly. It eventually slipped off; she had done it! Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door! Frances' blood froze. “Ms Krankle.” there was another knock. Krankle stirred. Frances did the only thing she could. She quickly scampered under the bed. “Enter,” mumbled a sleepy Krankle. She sat up in her bed. Underneath the bed Frances held her breath. The door opened and she watched a pair of grey shoes and socks walk in. “You said to tell you immediately when it was ready,” the voice said.
“Yes. Did you prepare it exactly as I asked?” Krankle enquired.
“Exactly,” came the reply.
“Thank you, you may leave.”
The grey shoes turned and started to walk away but stopped at the door. “Ms Krankle?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“You are aware that the mixture would be very dangerous for anyone who took it, I mean, you do realise it could kill them in quite a horrible way?” she asked nervously.
“You have been one of my most loyal servants,” Krankle answered.
“I have come to think of you as someone I can trust,” she continued. The minion smiled. “But if you question my wishes again, I will make you howl for your mother! Do you understand!”
“Yes Ms Krankle.” and with that the grey shoes and socks left the room. Frances stayed as still as a stone under the bed. She heard Krankle shuffling about then getting up and leaving the room. Frances waited for a minute before crawling out of her hiding place. She looked around. The rest of the keys and the syringe were gone. In their place was a small glass bottle half full of an inky black liquid. Frances moved quickly for the door. She had to get to the cellar before Krankle!