The Time of the Ghost
Diana Wynne Jones

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Imogen heaved herself up on to her elbows. “Oh nothing,” she said bitterly. “They’ve forgotten to leave us any supper again. That’s all.”

There was silence. Imogen lay there, Cart and Fenella stood, looking depressed. None of them behaved as if this was unexpected. Indeed, Sally knew it was not. It happened fairly often. I don’t think I’ll start haunting them just yet, she decided. She knew too well how they were feeling.

Below her, Imogen’s eyes bulged waterily. “This is the last straw,” she said. Her voice croaked. “I think I shall simply starve and die.”

Cart and Fenella leapt towards Imogen and hauled her off the floor. “Oh, Imogen, don’t cry again,” Cart said. “The rest of us have to listen to you.”

Fenella said, with menace, “I’ll go to the kitchen.” Sally had expected that. It was usually Fenella who went to deal with School for them. Since Sally felt she had had enough of Imogen grieving that afternoon, she went with Fenella. Fenella marched down the passage, swung wide the green door and marched to the silver door. THUMP. Fenella let the silver door swing shut behind her and stood meaningly, waiting to be noticed.

School kitchen was a hot vista of gravy steam, white enamel, shiny taps and greasy black floor. Three white-coated ladies were standing in the steam by the serving hatch. They had finished their own supper, as the three plates covered with scraped gravy on the table showed, and were drinking out of thick white cups. They were laughing loudly and did not notice the thump of the door. Nevertheless, Fenella did not move. She did not do anything that Sally could see, but, somehow, she became steadily more and more noticeable. Her green sack became shriller, her buck teeth seemed to grow larger and her whole self, with its wriggly dark hair and insect knees, shortly seemed to fill the whole end of the kitchen, vengeful and brooding and waiting. Sally much admired this. It was a gift Fenella had.

Two seconds later, Mrs Gill’s bent cigarette turned that way irritably. “You,” she said, “have been told often enough not to come in here bothering us when we’re working.”

Fenella simply stood and looked at her.

“I shall tell your mother,” said Mrs Gill. She put down her cup and ran at a saucepan of steaming custard, which she shook vigorously, to show how busy she was.

Fenella spoke, deep and loud. “I came,” she said. Really, Sally thought, it was as if Fenella was doing the haunting and not Sally at all. “I came because we haven’t got any supper again.”

“Well, there’s no need to look at me like that!” Mrs Gill retorted. “I’ve got enough to do without running after four great girls that ought to be able to look after themselves. You’ve got a kitchen in there. You ought to cook for yourselves. When I was your age—”

Icily, Fenella cut through this. “There isn’t a cooker in our kitchen.”

“Then there should be!” Mrs Gill said, scoring a triumph. “Your mother should ask for one to be put in, and then—”

“Our supper is paid for,” said Fenella. “Tonight.”

“I can’t help that!” shrilled Mrs Gill. “It’s none of my business who pays for what. I’m only the cook here. And how your mother expects me to manage on the provisions I get, I just don’t know!”

The other ladies, looking nervously at Fenella’s brooding face, seemed to feel Mrs Gill needed support.

“There wasn’t hardly enough meat to go round, dear,” said one.

“And the veg was off. We had to eke out with frozen,” said the other.

Fenella smiled at them. It was a ghastly sight. It was as if her face had split open. “Never mind. You’ll both be interviewed on television when we die of starvation.’

The two looked at one another. Fancy!

“Oh all right!” snapped Mrs Gill. “I’ll see what’s left in the fridge. You’ll find some bread and some cheese in that cupboard. And I can spare some custard.”

Mrs Gill flounced to the cupboards and the fridge and clattered out bowls and plates. Fenella stood silently by, accepting everything Mrs Gill offered. She accepted twice as much as there would have been in the ordinary way, and a bowl of custard. Shortly, her skinny arms were braced round almost more food than she could carry.

“Thank you,” she said at last. It was royal.

“I don’t know why your sister can’t carry some of it,” Mrs Gill said fretfully, heaving the custard saucepan off the stove. “She’s twice the size you are.”

Fenella’s chin was lowered to keep a block of cheese in place. She gave Mrs Gill a quick, shrewd look from under her knotted hair. “If you mean Sally,” she said, “she’s dead.”

Mrs Gill’s mouth opened, with the cigarette stuck to its lower lip. She spun round, holding the saucepan. She looked straight at Sally, hovering at Fenella’s side. Her open mouth stiffened, until it went almost square. She screamed, “AHA-aaaaa-a-a-a!” a long fading scream, like someone falling off a cliff, and dropped the saucepan. Custard flew. It went in yellow dollops and strong gouts, through Sally, across Fenella’s insect legs, and along the kitchen floor right up to the silver door. The other two ladies screamed as well, at the sight of it.

“Oh dear,” Fenella said briskly. “What a pity.” She turned and picked her way, slithering a little in the river of custard, to the door. She pushed through the door. THUMP. Sally dived after her.

Mrs Gill broke out screaming again behind the door. “Oh look at that! It went through the door! Did you seeeee? It went throooough!”

She was clearly audible beyond the green door as Fenella eased herself and her armful of food carefully through that. Imogen and Cart sped to meet her.

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