Almost as soon as they arrived back at the big Georgian manor that had been in the Thimble family for centuries, the phone rang with a nasal rendition of ‘Long, Long Ago’, and Sir Humphrey, having swept the family from the study and locked the door, snatched the opportunity to spend an hour conversing with Dr Elizabeth Kennedy, his late wife’s good friend.
By six o’clock, when the entire family was seated around the long cherrywood table, all was planned and settled, and Sir Humphrey faced the ordeal of informing his family of the future events of the ensuing months.
Eleven-year-old Delia had been wondering quietly to herself all morning, in her lonely boredom at home, and she had amused herself that afternoon letting sly hints of a life-changing surprise drop from her lips to her unsuspecting siblings, who were charged with curiosity, and had been pestering the invalid much of the past two hours, under the false impression that she knew the raw truth of the surprise, and every last detail embellishing this strange clouded truth.
So as Sir Humphrey sat down at the head of the long oak table to shepherd’s pie, popular in the Thimble household but hardly heeded on this occasion, Aoife spoke briskly.
“Now then, Uncle Humph, what is all this about a shock young Dee has been broadcasting all over the BBC?”
Aoife Thimble had been living with her uncle’s family for ten years by this time, as her own parents had been gallivanting all over the world since she had been nine, and she hadn’t seen them since. They were artists, and though Aoife herself seemed to be following in their footsteps, she was not inclined to go to University – or, indeed, to find a job. Of all the Thimbles, with the exception of Sir Humphrey, it had seemed to strike Aoife the most violently when her Aunt ‘Nymph’ had died, just three years ago. The girls Delia and Blaise had recovered from the worst of their sorrow, and so had Daniel, to a lesser extent. Robert, the eldest, had just been married at the time, and it had affected him very little after the initial shock of loss. As for Nathaniel, baby of the family, he had only been two years old when he was rendered motherless, and his memories of her were very faded. But Aoife, at sixteen, had been horrified and saddened, as her aunt who had been such a friend to her since her ninth birthday had helped her through all the difficult stages of girlhood. Aoife vowed that her first daughter would be called Dymphna after her aunt, and, perhaps, she kept her vow – we shall see; when Rob’s daughter arrived, it had been his idea to name her for his deceased mother, but anything less like Dymmie Thimble would have been difficult to find in his dark, blue-eyed daughter. And in a funny way, Aoife was relieved. Rob, eldest of many, had always been the distant member of the family, and Aoife knew that when he looked at his daughter, had he named her Dymphna, he would never have been reminded of a strong gaze and a gentle touch, or a lilting accent tinged with the green love of a Celt.
Now Sir Humphrey turned tender eyes on the niece he had learned to love as his own girl. “Mercy! I hope you haven’t done any such thing, young Delia! I’m not anxious for any level of publicity, thank you.”
“Go on, Dad! What’s cooking?” called a small voice from the end of the table, and there was a short half-hysterical chuckle from some girl as she choked on her pomegranate juice.
“Well?” redheaded Daniel queried. “You can’t keep it from us. Sooner or later Nat will get hold of your diary and blare it out to everyone under the sun.” Another reminiscent laugh followed, and Aoife blushed furiously, for it had been her diary in question on the previous occasion.
Sir Humphrey didn’t believe in being tantalising, and he went straight to the point. “To put a long story short, we, as a family, are taking a long holiday to Austria."