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The Masquerade Ball

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At first, Alison is grateful for the quiet the following morning. Her brain is wrung out - she woke up several times during the night to the sensation that the bed was spinning. She knows by now that mixing spirits and wine doesn’t end well for her, but she’d been having too much fun to care. Last night, that one more glass of wine before bed had felt like an amazing idea.

A little peace for a lie-in is very welcome.

By the time she finally manages to drag herself out of bed and into a steaming, hot shower, it’s already gone lunchtime. Now starving, and pepped up by the sensation of the hot water on her skin, Alison makes her way down to the kitchen. Mike isn’t feeling quite up to making his way out from under the duvet yet, but she knows some cold orange juice and toast will cure him.

Given the time of day, the ongoing silence in the house is starting to unsettle Alison. She licks buttery toast crumbs off her fingers, frowning. She hasn’t come across a single ghost yet today, and no one had come to shout at her for sleeping in. On the rare occasions that she’s slept past nine in the past, she’d woken up to Fanny accusing her of falling behind on the duties that come with being the lady of the house.

Alison remembers the strange mood she’d found them all in upstairs the night before. The memory is hazy, and trying to dig it out hurts her head, but she doesn’t think any of them had told her what was going on anyway. They’d told her it was nothing and then Mike had turned up with her JD and coke, and that was that, she’d gone back to dancing. They were all adults after all, they should be able to sort themselves out.

Should be able to, Alison thinks, biting into her toast, but all the evidence she’s seen before tells her that isn’t actually the case. So where are they, and what’s wrong?

‘Hello?’ she croaks out, throat scratchy from all of last night’s shouting.

‘Hello, Alison,’ a male voice replies, muffled, but Alison still can’t see anyone.

Her heart jumps into her throat. Oh god, is there some randomer in her house that didn’t leave last night?

‘Open the oven,’ the voice says again, and Alison catches on to just who’s speaking to her.

She puts her plate of toast down and steps over to the oven, flipping the door down.

‘Who put you in here, Humphrey?’ she asks the disembodied head within. She instinctively goes to pick him up and remove him from this entirely inappropriate resting place, but then remembers she can’t touch him.

At least he’s facing outwards and can make eye contact with her.

‘I was on the DJ booth for a while but people kept putting their drinks in me, so Kitty thought I’d be safer in here,’ he explains. ‘She was supposed to tell you.’

‘She didn’t,’ Alison says, switching from her squatting position to sit properly on the cold flagstones, crossing her legs. She takes another bite of toast. ‘I didn’t see much of any of them last night and when I did, things were weird.’

‘I got the sense myself that something was amiss,’ Humphrey says. ‘Kitty seemed rather distraught, she thought that she had upset everyone. I wasn’t there myself and I couldn’t quite understand what she was saying she had done, but she kept talking about broken hearts.’

‘Broken hearts? But I thought they were all having a good time?’

Even though he’s just a head, Humphrey somehow manages to convey to Alison that he’s shrugging.

‘Valentine’s Day, holidays, special occasions… Days like that can be hard when you exist as we do. They get people thinking about missed opportunities, and there’s not much you can do to fix those and take chances again when you’re a ghost.’

Alison bites her lip.

‘I’m sorry, Humphrey. I’m not always very good at remembering what it must be like for all of you,’ she says.

‘Don’t trouble yourself over it, Alison, we get over these things. We’ve got plenty of time, but you, you need to be busy living. That you think of us at all is more than many of us have had in hundreds of years.’

He smiles at her and she smiles back.

‘Still,’ Alison says, getting to her feet. ‘I’d like to do something to try and fix things today, or everyone will miss Film Night.’

‘They’ll all come around, I’m sure – but perhaps a gentle nudge from you will help.’

 

~*~

 

Having left a note on the open oven door to explain to Mike just why it’s open (“Humphrey (head) in here. Don’t use, I’ll get one of them to move him later”), Alison sets out to look for the others.

As the house itself is so quiet, Alison heads out into the garden. She’s slightly unnerved not to have come across any of the others yet, and Mary’s talk of people being ‘sucked off’ starts to echo round her head. She hates to think any of them might have disappeared, especially without the chance to say goodbye. They’re pains in the arse, sure, but they’re her pains in the arse. Just like a family is supposed to be, if she’s learnt anything from spending time with Mike and his teasing sisters.

She’s just starting to admit to herself that she’s maybe, just maybe, panicking a bit, when she sees a familiar straight-backed figure loitering at the gatepost.

The Captain is stood with his back to the house, staring out down the driveway, hands behind his back.

‘You missed your morning run,’ Alison says as she approaches, feet crunching on the gravel, breath puffing out in front of her. It’s freezing, and she hadn’t thought to put a coat on. She wraps her arms around herself as she comes to a stop just behind him.

Her words startle him and he does a poor job of hiding it, as usual. He clears his throat and attempts to play off his jumpy reaction.

‘One rather suspected that you wouldn’t be up to the task of timekeeping this morning,’ he says, about-turning to face her. ‘A bally shame really, I could certainly shave a second or two off in this cold air.’

‘I’m sure you could,’ she says, indulging him. ‘I- uh… It’s dead quiet up at the house. Is everything alright? Are – are you alright?’

‘I’m first class, Alison, I assure you, just as an officer should be.’

‘What’re you doing out here then?’

‘I was… inspecting. You know, checking. Just checking my usual checks,’ he brushes his hand against the gatepost and it phases through the chipped bricks.

‘Oh, ok, good. Have you seen any of the others? Everyone seems to be hiding.’

‘I’d have thought you’d rather like that.’

‘I would if it wasn’t so concerning. Everyone was acting so strange last night, although, actually – you weren’t there, were you? In the common room, when everyone else was so down?’

The Captain clears his throat.

‘I had to leave on my patrols. Lots of strangers about last night, someone had to keep an eye on them.’

‘So, what happened? Humphrey says Kitty thought she’d upset everyone.’

The Captain avoids her eyes and looks down at his swagger stick. He adjusts his fastidiously buttoned jacket.

‘Katherine wished to indulge in talk of love. This was something of a… misfire.’

‘I can see why,’ Alison says.

‘Quite.’

Alison brushes her hair out of her face and decides to nudge, just slightly. She knows the Captain can and will bore them all to tears with talk on all things tanks and military tactics, but she knows very little about the man himself.

‘And that’s why you left, is it? They were talking about love and -,’

‘It doesn’t do for an officer to indulge in such talk, quite frankly, Alison. The rank and file can’t be allowed to see that you have a heart.’

‘Ah, so you do have one?’ she teases.

‘That’s classified,’ he says shortly, turning away from her, looking back down the driveway again.

‘Who’re you waiting for then?’ she asks, nodding her head in the direction of the driveway, trees swaying over the road. ‘Why are you out here staring down the drive like it might disappear?’

‘Because, young lady, sometimes people do just disappear out of your life, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ His words have the rhythm of anger, but the sadness in them is inescapable.

‘I’m sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean -,’

‘I told you it doesn’t do to indulge in such talk. A fellow has to keep these things close to his chest.’

He’s avoiding her eyes again.

‘Ok, I get it. But,’ she says, slowly, ‘if you ever do want to,’ she searches for the right words, ‘… keep things a little less close to your chest, I don’t mind listening.’

The Captain sighs.

‘There really isn’t anything to say. Nothing can be changed now. We have to keep calm and carry on.’

‘But if you ever do…’

The Captain glances at her, and relaxes from his post, tearing his eyes away from the driveway.

‘Perhaps one day, Alison, since you and your generation are so insistent on all of this bally talking. However, I think you and I have enough on our plates today trying to boost the morale in camp. I take it that’s why you sought me out?’

Alison can sense that it would sting him to know that she wasn’t looking for him in particular, just any one of them would have done, so she nods.

‘Of course, I haven’t been able to find anyone else other than Humphrey. His head, anyway.’

‘Then you certainly do need my help. A Captain must always know his men’s hiding places.’

 

*~*

 

For once, the Captain isn’t exaggerating his abilities – he really does seem to know where to find everyone.

Pat, as it turns out, isn’t too far away. They find him hanging around the remains of the campsite that he’d helped Alison create in the woods not so long ago, lying where the tent had been. The Captain attempts to enlist him in the mission, but he really isn’t interested.

‘Not today, Cap,’ he says, drawing his knees up to his chest.

‘Now, see here, Patrick, you can’t just lay about here all day, there’s work to be done, order to be maintained,’ the Captain says, gesturing firmly with his swagger stick.

‘I think what the Captain is trying to say,’ Alison says, taking a more gentle tone, ‘is that we really could do with your help. There’s a whole house up there feeling out of sorts and I can’t fix that by myself.’

‘I don’t know, Alison…’ Pat says.

‘You’re the best man for the job, Patrick, why do you think I sought you out first?’ the Captain says.

‘Because I was easiest to find?’

‘Not at all, I know exactly where everyone will be at a moment such as this. I came to you first because a good Captain knows when he needs his second-in-command, and you’re one of the very best.’

Pat immediately perks up. He gets clumsily to his feet and pushes his glasses up his nose.

‘Ok! Reporting for duty!’

He salutes, once at Cap and once at Alison.

‘I need you to find Thomas, Robin, and Mary, and pick up Humphrey on your way. Thomas is almost certainly in the lake, Robin will be down in the cellar with the villagers, and Mary will be in the kitchen garden, just beyond the rose garden.’

‘Humphrey’s in the oven, the door’s open,’ Alison adds.

‘What do I do once I’ve got them?’

The Captain turns to Alison expectantly. She hesitates, having not come up with a plan beyond ‘find everyone’.

‘Bring them to the common room. We’ll meet you there with the others soon.’

‘Got it.’

Pat salutes once again, and heads off in the direction of the lake.

‘That was good, what you did with Pat there,’ Alison says to the Captain, as they both watch the Scout leader disappear from sight. ‘I didn’t know you had it in you.’

‘As you may have gathered today already, Alison, I’m not a man entirely without feeling,’ he replies, setting off at pace. ‘Now, can I trust you to find Katherine by yourself?’

 

*~*

 

Following the Captain’s instructions, Alison makes her way to the second floor of the East Wing – one of the least done up parts of the house – and finds Kitty in what had apparently once been a nursery.

The young Georgian woman sits on a rocking chair, although it doesn’t rock beneath her. A crib with a missing side is tucked up under the window beside her. Alison carefully steps over a rocking horse with a tangled tail that’s lying on its side so she can stand at the window beside Kitty.

‘What’re you doing up here, Kitty?’ Alison asks, trying desperately not to sneeze as the thick dust in the room tickles her nose.

‘I just like to come here sometimes,’ Kitty says. ‘It used to be nice when there were babies and small children here, they were so lovely to watch laugh and play. This room hasn’t been used since Lady Heather was young.’

‘A long time ago then.’

‘Yes, I suppose that was a long time ago now.’

‘I hear you didn’t have the best time last night. I’m sorry, Kitty.’

‘That’s alright. It’s my own fault.’

‘Oh, Kitty, don’t say that,’ Alison says, crouching down beside the rocking chair.

‘Everyone was having such a wonderful time before I asked them all about love. I just wanted to know what it was like to be in love, but it turns out none of us here have had the best time of it.’

‘No, I don’t think anyone has.’

‘It makes me sad sometimes, knowing that I missed out on that. True love, a relationship. I so love to hear about it and read my stories. Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn't.’

Alison desperately wishes she could hug Kitty right now. She makes do with resting her hand next to Kitty’s on the arm of the rocking chair, careful not to actually touch her but close enough that Kitty knows she would touch her hand if she could.

‘I’m so sorry, Kitty, that you didn’t get to experience all that when you were alive, and that none of the others had love they wanted either. Everyone deserves that. But there are so many different kinds of love, aren’t there? Love between friends, and between family. I know they’re an odd bunch here but surely there’s still a chance for love like that? Or – or the love we have, me and you, like sisters.’

‘Like sisters?’

‘Of course. I know I don’t have any other siblings to compare it to, but you’re the best sister I could ask for.’

‘You too, Alison!’

With these words, Kitty transforms back into her usual, beaming self. She launches herself from the rocking chair.

‘I know Eleanor was mean to me that one time and made me miss the ball, but even if she hadn’t done that, you would still be my very favourite sister,’ she says.

‘Thanks, Kitty,’ Alison says with a smile. ‘Do you think you can help me out then? The others are still feeling a bit down, I think.’

‘I know exactly what I’m going to say,’ Kitty tells her. ‘I’m going to tell them all about what you just told me.’

 

*~*

 

True to her word, once all of the ghosts had assembled in the common room, Kitty tells them what Alison had said. How she would always be sad to have missed out on a true love, but that maybe there were all kinds of other love to be had here instead.

Alison isn’t surprised to see this message go down better with some of the group than with the others.

As Pat congratulates Kitty for her new perspective, Julian scoffs.

‘Remember our wager, Julian,’ Pat reminds him.

‘That was just for yesterday, surely?’ Julian says.

‘Wouldn’t hurt to make it last a bit longer though, eh? Maybe open your mind up to something new.’

Julian waves a hand dismissively.

‘I think you’re totally right, Kitty,’ Pat says. ‘It’s important to focus on what we do have. Even if some of that is Julian.’

‘Uh, right here, you know,’ Julian says.

‘Can be new ghosts here sometimes too,’ says Robin. ‘Lots of chance for kiss and cuddle and more.’

He waggles his layers of eyebrow.

Alison is taken aback.

‘What?’ she says. ‘You’re telling me some of you have, y’know, with each other?’

‘Absolutely not!’ cries Fanny.

‘What’re you talking about? You had a fling with Humphrey’s lower half only a few months ago!’ Julian crows.

‘What?!’ Alison finds herself on her feet.

‘Oh, did we not tell you?’ Pat says.

‘T’is true,’ Thomas adds. ‘The strangest romance I’ve ever seen, but a real one nonetheless.’

Alison is left reeling by this information – partly due to who’s involved, but also due to some questions that instantly spring to mind around the logistics of it all.

‘But Fanny, how did you -?’ she starts.

‘It’s over now, Alison, I’d rather not speak of it,’ Fanny says curtly.

‘See, what I say?’ says Robin. ‘Me have girlfriends here too. Nice Roman girl, but she sucked off after not long. Then, I see lady from village, she ghost here long time with me. Sucked off when Humphrey was young boy.’

Alison doesn’t like the smile that comes over Thomas’s face at Robin’s story.

‘Our chance could still come, fair Alison,’ he says.

‘Leave her alone, mate,’ Pat says. ‘Could be plenty of other girls here for you in time.’

‘One can only dream…’

‘Don’t go getting any funny ideas, Thorne,’ the Captain says sternly. ‘We keep things proper around here.’

‘I don’t think what Fanny and Humphrey’s body were up to can be described as proper,’ Thomas says.

The Captain hems and haws at Thomas’s implication. If ghosts could blush, Alison is sure he’d be bright pink right now.

‘I said I didn’t wish to speak of it anymore,’ says Fanny.

‘That’s very true, let us all be respectful of Fanny’s desires,’ says the Captain.

‘And let’s all agree,’ says Kitty, ‘that maybe someone will come along for us, or maybe we’ll move on before they do. But we aren’t without love, not at all.’

‘Here, here,’ says Pat, raising an invisible toast. ‘We have each other and, most importantly, we have Alison. It wouldn’t be Button House without her.’

As one, the others join Pat in his toast, raising their imaginary glasses.

‘To Alison,’ they say as one.

Alison smiles, and clinks her own invisible glass against all of theirs.