Extract from : The Tulip Touch

You shouldn’t tell a story till it’s over, and I’m not sure this one is. I’m not even certain when it really began, unless it was the morning Dad thrust my bawling brother Julius back in Mum’s arms, and picked up the ringing telephone.

‘The Palace? Why ever would they want me at the Palace?’

Anyone listening might have begun to think of royal garden parties, or something. But even back then, when I heard people saying things like ‘the black horse’ or the palace’, I got a different picture. And that’s because I’ve lived in hotels all my life. I don’t even remember the first one, the Old Ship. Mum says it was small and ivy-covered, with only six bedrooms. Then Dad was manager of the North Bay. And later he was moved to the Queen’s Arms, where we were living then.

‘So what’s the Palace’s problem?’

He listened so long, and sighed so heavily, that Mum had looked up from trying to placate Julius with his favourite furry rabbit even before we heard Dad say,

‘And I suppose you’ve forgotten I already have thirty beds to run here, not to mention a small son who makes sure nobody can eve think.’

That’s when he noticed us watching, and, turning his back, finished almost in a whisper.

‘All right. I’ll drive over. Just to take a look.’

I don’t know what time he got back, but it was late. Our flat was above the kitchens, and the huge extractor fans had stopped humming. The only sounds left were the usual muffled telephones and scurrying footsteps.

At breakfast, he said to me:

‘You ought to see it, Natalie. It’s enormous. It’s got over sixty bedrooms, and it sits on its lawns like a giant wedding cake set out on a perfect green table cloth.

‘When can we come?’

He glanced at Mum, worn out from another bad night with Julius.

‘Soon. Before I finish there. I’ll take you over for the day.’

But when we finally saw it, it wasn’t for the day. It was with suitcases and boxes and bags.

‘I’m sorry about this,’ Dad kept saying. ‘I really did think this was really going to be a short job.’

Mum tried to resettle Julius in the hot crush of his car seat. He squawked and struggled. And, tense from packing, she complained the whole way.

‘A few lumps of plaster falling in the guests’ hair, you told me. Three weeks at most, till all the ceilings were fixed. And now it’s wet rot. And dry rot. And problems with the piping, and the fire doors. Why can’t the old manager cope? He’s the one who let it all happen.’

Dad knew there was no point in answering. He just drove.

‘One man not up to the job,’ Mum grumbled. ‘And suddenly three weeks in three months, and Natalie has to come out of school a week before the holidays, and –’

We swung round the last bend, and she broke off. Before us stood the Palace, vast and imposing, silencing petty complaints.

Dad switched off the engine and Mum scrambled out. Julius immediately stopped struggling and fell quiet. Mum unstrapped him and lifted him into her arms. And as she carried him up the wide stone steps to the Palace, suddenly behind her the whole sky was ablaze. And on the lawns on either side of her, the peacocks spread their glimmering fans.

‘See?’ Dad whispered to me, triumphant. ‘A good omen.’

But I felt differently. I felt so strange. I think I must have been dizzy from the ride. I stumbled out of the car, and suddenly the sky seemed too high above me, the grass too green. And one of the peacocks let out the most unholy cry, and I was filled with such unease.

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect. BB