“Here we are,” Sarah Jane said as she turned the green Figaro in through the open gate to the gravel driveway. “Christmas House.”
“Strange name to call a house,” Clyde considered. “I mean, great at this time of year, but a bit daft in July.”
“It’s a great name for a house,” Maria contradicted him. “Did The Doctor say why he wanted us to come here?”
“He said it was a surprise,” Sarah Jane answered. “I don’t know. Seems like he had a wild idea and decided to act on it. He does that. I suppose we should be thankful it’s on the same planet.”
“Maybe it isn’t inside,” Clyde replied. “It could be a portal to another world.”
“You watch too much TV,” Luke told him. “Anyway, I think it looks a great place to spend a weekend.”
It was a big detached house, set back from the road, with ivy growing up the walls and a slightly overgrown but still pretty garden.
There were lights on inside the house.
“Is there somebody there already?” Maria asked as they got out of the car and approached the big, double sided front door with a half circle fanlight over it.
“No,” Sarah Jane answered. “But The Doctor said everything would be ready for us.”
She opened the door with a key that had come with the invitation and they stepped inside. They had expected it to be old and dusty and neglected. But it wasn’t. It was very nicely furnished and warm, and from somewhere there was a smell of fresh coffee.
They found the coffee in the drawing room just to the right of the hallway where stairs went up to the second and third floor. There was a plate of mince pies, still warm, and a pot of fresh cream, too.
“It’s as if somebody was here only a few minutes before we arrived,” Maria commented as she tasted one of the mince pies. “That’s a little creepy, even if it is The Doctor.”
There was a letter addressed to Sarah Jane in neat handwriting that she recognised right away. She read it as she drank her coffee.
Sarah Jane’s eyes twinkled with joy at the ‘see you then’ at the end of the note. He was going to be there for dinner. She tried to disguise how pleased she was at that, but failed.
“Mum, he’s too young for you,” Luke said.
“He’s too old for me,” she answered. “Far too old. But I just want to see him again. And I’m glad he wants to see me. Meanwhile…” She took the coffee pot, cream jug and sugar bowl off the silver tray and turned it over. There was an envelope taped to the bottom. It had Maria’s name on it. She gave it to her.
“I thought riddles were meant to rhyme,” Clyde pointed out.
“It’s assonance,” Maria replied, though she wasn’t entirely sure it was. Possibly The Doctor wasn’t a particularly good poet. “Anyway, halfway up the stairs…”
She was the first to reach the hallway. The two boys followed, and Sarah Jane behind them. She climbed the stairs to the first landing. There was a window that looked out to the back of the house, where more slightly overgrown garden stretched as far as a stand of pine trees. There was a gazebo in the middle of it that looked just like the summer house in The Sound of Music.
“Is this halfway up?” Maria asked as she looked at where the stairs turned a corner and continued up. “What does it mean by wooden rose?”
The walls were wood panelled as old houses so often are. But where did a wooden rose come into it?
“The panels,” Luke said. “Look… they all have flower decorations carved into them. Different flowers. One of them must be a rose?”
“Ohhh, that’s so corny,” Clyde commented. “It’s so Famous Five. Secret hiding places behind panels in old houses!”
“Does that mean that The Doctor reads kids literature?” Maria wondered as she looked at the panels. Sure enough, there was one with a carved rose on it. She looked at it carefully, but could see no obvious handle or anything. But it wouldn’t be obvious, of course. It was a secret panel. She felt all over it carefully, pressing at different parts of the panel.
“‘Woof,’ said Timmy the dog’,” Clyde said in a sardonic tone. “‘Timmy, what a clever dog you are.’”
“K9 is a clever dog. We should have brought him,” Luke replied.
“He wouldn’t be any good on the stairs,” Maria pointed out. “Wait… I think I’ve found something. There’s a sort of groove…” She pressed down on the edge of the panel, ignoring Clyde’s comments. She heard a click, and the panel pushed inwards. “No, I haven’t broken it,” she added. “Shut up, Clyde. It’s….” The panel slid sideways to reveal a space behind. There was a parcel wrapped in shiny red foil paper inside. A label had her name on it. She picked it up and noted that it was quite heavy.
“Open it,” Luke and Clyde both said with excitement.
“Downstairs,” Sarah Jane suggested. “You might drop it.”
The boys were downstairs waiting in the drawing room before Maria. They were even more excited than she was. They watched as she carefully folded back the wrapping paper to reveal a strong cardboard box. She opened it and gasped with pleasure as she saw a large, squat, elaborately painted Russian Doll nestled in moulded polystyrene. She lifted it out carefully and noted that it was made of wood. It stood about fifteen inches high. She carefully turned the upper half and, as expected, it unscrewed to reveal a slightly smaller but no less finely made doll. That opened into a third, then a fourth, and a fifth doll.
“Five ladies waiting to greet me, of course,” Maria said.
“This is an antique,” Sarah Jane noted, looking at the maker’s mark on the underside of the first doll. “Made in Russia in 1901.” She smiled widely. “It’s as good as new. He probably BOUGHT it in Russia in 1901, knowing him.”
“It’s great,” Maria added. “How did he know? I had a plastic set of these when I was a kid. The middle one got lost and I was really upset. But not even dad knew how much it was my favourite toy.”
“The Doctor knows everything,” Sarah Jane answered. “Apart from how to get to South Croydon.”
They all understood that comment, but Maria was excited about something else. She picked up the top half of the largest doll and found two envelopes taped inside it. One was addressed to her and contained tickets to the Russian National Ballet in London. Maria smiled at the bonus gift and then looked at the other envelope. It was addressed to Clyde.
“It’s a crossword puzzle,” he said, showing the note to the others. “One of those with no clues, just numbers in each box and a secret message to fill in below. That must be the clue to where my present is hidden.”
“Ohh, I hate those sort of puzzles,” Maria said. “I prefer proper crosswords.”
“I love them,” Clyde replied, then looked faintly embarrassed. He was an outdoors boy, football, skateboarding. He had never even told his closest friends that when he was at home he liked nothing better than to be huddled in a big armchair by the fire with a pen and a puzzle book.
The Doctor knew?
He fished a pencil from his pocket and sat down at the coffee table. The other two sat with him. Luke tried to be helpful, telling him that ‘4’ was the most common number in the puzzle, which had to be the ‘E’ as that was the most common letter in the alphabet.
“I know that,” he answered, trying not to be irritated. He filled in the ‘E’ wherever ‘4’ appeared on the main grid, and also in the secret message which read.
_ _ /_ _ e/_ _ _ _ _ e _/ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ _ _ e_/_ _ e/_ _ _ _.
“The second and second last words are THE,” Clyde guessed and filled in the blanks.
_ _ /the/_ _ t _ h e _/ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ _ _ e_/th e/_ _ _ _.
“Right, now we’re getting somewhere.” He looked at the main grid and filled in all the t’s and h’s. Then he looked at the secret message again.
“The first word could be either ‘in’,” he said. “Because that would make this word in the main grid ‘thin’. That would make sense. It’s saying something is ‘in the…’”
He filled in the letter ‘N’ on the grid and on the secret message.
_ n /the/_ _ t _ hen/ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ n _ e_/the/_ _n _.
Then he filled in ‘I’.
In /the/_ it _ hen/ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ n _ e_/the/_ in _.
“It’s working,” he said. “It makes sense. “In the….”
“I think I know,” Luke said.
“I’m sure you do,” Clyde answered. “Super brain and all. But it’s my clue. Just let me get there in my own good time. There has to be more vowels in this, yet. And…”
He looked at the grid again. The word “thin’ fitted in one of the across words. But down from the ‘t’ was ‘thin_’. He ran through all the words that could make sense, then smiled as he completed the word on the grid then filled in two more in the secret message.
In /the/kit _ hen/ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ n _ e_/the/_ ink.
The third word could only be one thing. He filled in the missing letter.
In /the/kitchen/ c _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ n _ e_/the/_ ink.
“I know it,” Luke said again. But Clyde was determined to sort it out for himself. He looked at the last word and added in a letter, double checking that it made sense in the grid of random words.
In /the/kitchen/ c _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ n _ e_/the/sink.
Then he filled in the letters in the third from last word.
In /the/kitchen/cu _ _ _ _ rd / under/the/sink.
“Got it!” he said triumphantly.
“Where’s the kitchen?”
The three youngsters ran off to the kitchen. Sarah Jane followed a bit more slowly. Time was, she reflected, she’d have been running ahead. But she wasn’t a teenager any more.
She heard the excited shouts from the kitchen, but her attention was drawn to the dining room. She stepped in and looked at the beautifully laid table with crisp white linen, sparkling glassware, china and silver cutlery. There were festive floral arrangements and candles all ready for a celebration dinner. A Christmas tree and holly decorations finished off the lovely room. On the sideboard, bottles of red wine and a decanter of port were settling down to room temperature.
“Sarah Jane!” Clyde ran back to her, followed by the other two. “Look at this.” He held up what had to be the most expensive remote control model aeroplane money could buy. It was as finely detailed as Maria’s Russian dolls had been. “It’s a replica of the Bell X-1, the first plane to fly faster than the speed of sound,” Clyde explained. “I don’t think this one can. But… I loved model planes when I was little. I always wanted to fly.”
Luke was busy opening the envelope that was addressed to him, and had been attached to the fuselage of the plane. He passed something that was in it to Clyde, whose eyes nearly popped out of his head as he saw that it was a voucher entitling him to six flying lessons, the first on his sixteenth birthday, next year.
“Mum?” Luke said, noticing that Sarah Jane hadn’t said anything. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m just wondering… The four of us, plus The Doctor, makes five for dinner. But that table is set for a lot more than that. I’m just wondering what he’s planning.”
“Oh, well, you know The Doctor,” Luke replied.
“He’s probably invited the Zygons,” Clyde commented.
“I don’t think so,” Sarah Jane laughed. Though nothing short of that would surprise her by now.
To Be Continued...