A talent for trouble, p.1

A Talent for Trouble, page 1


A Talent for Trouble

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A Talent for Trouble


  * * *

  Title Page





  Goodbye, Cherry Grange

  Shhh! Listen!

  The End of the World

  Fluffy and Soft and Covered in Penguins and Unicorns

  They Are All Mad


  The Major

  I Know What a Pyromaniac Is

  A Talent for Trouble

  Humongously, Enormously, and Superlatively Sorry

  We’d Be Mad to Try It



  We Didn’t Mean to Kill You

  Like a Swamp, Without the Crocodiles

  Kings and Queen

  The Lake Isle of Innisfree

  Baby Birds and Kittens and Other Waifs

  Stormy Loch

  Midnight Picnics

  A Paradise for Seabirds


  The Great Orienteering Challenge

  Someone Has to Be in Charge

  Somewhere a Lark

  The North Star

  The Great Explorer

  The Mosquito Woman


  Darkly Lit Against the Sky


  Issue a Full Description

  It’s That Global Warming

  It Sure Is Different from Oklahoma


  There Must Be a Castle

  Knights and Dragons and Witches

  The Tide Will Go Out

  On the Bright White Sand

  The Actor

  And the Sky Exploded


  A Million Euros

  And Then . . .

  About the Author

  Connect with HMH on Social Media

  Perhaps I’m mad . . . but I think children must lead big lives . . . if it is in them to do so.

  Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

  Clarion Books

  3 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016

  Copyright © 2018 by Natasha Farrant

  First U.S. edition, 2019

  First published in 2018 as Children of Castle Rock by Faber & Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House, 74–77 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DA

  All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.com or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  Clarion Books is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.


  Cover illustration © 2019 by Jennifer Bricking

  Cover design by Sharismar Rodriguez

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Farrant, Natasha, author.

  Title: A talent for trouble / Natasha Farrant.

  Description: First U.S. edition. | Boston ; New York : Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. | Summary: Originally published: London : Faber & Faber Limited, 2018. | Summary: Eleven-year-old Alice Mistlethwaite persuades her boarding school friends, Jesse and Fergus, to set out on an off-the-grid adventure in which they face storms, illness, injury, and international jewel thieves.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2019001086 (print) | LCCN 2019002590 (ebook)

  ISBN 9781328580788 (hardback) | ISBN 9780358164364 (e-book)

  Subjects: | CYAC: Adventure and adventurers—Fiction. | Boarding schools—Fiction. | Schools—Fiction. | Friendship—Fiction. | Survival—Fiction. | Scotland—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION / Action & Adventure / Survival Stories. | JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Friendship. | JUVENILE FICTION / Girls & Women. | JUVENILE FICTION / Social Issues / Emotions & Feelings.

  Classification: LCC PZ7.F2406 (ebook) | LCC PZ7.F2406 Tal 2019 (print)

  DDC [Fic]—dc23 | LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019001086


  For Phoebe, most excellent of goddaughters, with thanks for her invaluable help.


  Goodbye, Cherry Grange

  Imagine a house, in a garden. The paint is flaking and the chimney is cracked and the uncut grass is wild. But ignore all that. Look here instead, at the giant wisteria with a vine as thick as your arm, its purple flowers dripping against the old stone wall. Look at the swing hanging from that ancient oak, those cherry trees planted in a circle around the house. One of the trees is so close to a window that in summer, when it fruits, the girl who lives here can reach out to pick the cherries.

  Imagine that—picking cherries from your bedroom window!

  The house, Cherry Grange, was named for the trees. A man called Albert Mistlethwaite built it over a hundred years ago when he came home from a war, and his family has lived here ever since.

  That’s a lot of cherries, and pies, and cakes, and pots of jam.

  We’ll go inside now. Do you see those pale rectangles on the hall floor, those other pale rectangles on the walls? They were made by rugs and pictures, but those have gone now, along with all the furniture. There’s nothing left but dust and sunlight.

  Let’s move on! Here is the kitchen—and here is the family, finishing breakfast.

  Small, pale eleven-year-old Alice sits cross-legged on the counter with her nose in a book, tracing the words with her finger as she reads, chewing the end of one of her stiff dark braids. Her father, Barney (you may have seen him once on television), stands drinking coffee by the window with his back to the room, while his older sister, Alice’s aunt Patience, in paint-spattered overalls, dries crockery at the sink.

  The last of the Mistlethwaites, in their natural habitat. Take a good look—you’ll not see this again. For the house is sold, and today they are moving out.


  Shhh! Listen!

  A bloodcurdling screech broke the silence in the kitchen, followed by a series of thumps. Barney turned away from the window.

  “The house,” he observed, “is crying.”

  “It’s just the wind in the chimney.” Patience finished drying and began to stack crockery into a plastic crate. “It doesn’t help being all dramatic. And hurry up with that mug.”

  A juddering moan—the water pipes—succeeded the thumps.

  “Revenge of Cherry Grange,” rasped Barney in a loud stage whisper. “That’s what it would be called if it were a film. The Curse of the Mistlethwaites. The Haunting of the Brown-Watsons.”

  The Brown-Watsons were the happy, bouncy family of six people and two Labradors who had bought Cherry Grange. All the Mistlethwaites loathed them, even Patience, who had actually wanted to sell the house.

  “Barney, your mug!” she snapped now.

  “All right, all right!” He drank the coffee and handed her the mug. “But just so you know, Alice has already written a story about the Brown-Watsons, and they all die except the dogs. It’d make a cracking film, wouldn’t it, Alicat?”

  Alice looked up from her book and blinked. “What?”

  “We’re talking about your story,” said Barney. “And ghosts.”

  Patience shoved the crate at him. “Go and put this in the car,” she said, then, “Alice, where are you going?”

  Alice, at the mention of ghosts, had turned even paler and slid off the kitchen counter. Now, like scores of Mistlethwaites before her, she was opening the garden door with a practiced kick.

  “Mum,” she said.

  “Your mum?” Patience looked baffled. “What are you talking about? Alice! Breakfast!”

  But Alice was already gone.

  It had rained in the night, and the grass was still wet. Uncut since the previous summer, in some places it reached almost to Alice’s
knees, soaking through her jeans. She didn’t notice, and if she had noticed, she wouldn’t have cared. She thumped through the grass and past the ring of cherry trees dropping the last of their blossoms, round the weed-choked pond where the heron came every spring to eat the tadpoles when they turned into frogs, past the butterfly bush and the lavender, until she arrived panting at the bench at the end of the garden.

  She couldn’t believe she had forgotten.

  Her father and her aunt had yet to explain properly why they were leaving, but Alice was almost certain that if her mother hadn’t died, none of this would be happening. Mum had loved Cherry Grange as if she had been born Clara Mistlethwaite instead of Clara Kaminska, and when she was alive, everything—everything!—had been better. The house had been full of noise, because Mum was always laughing and singing and dancing, and it had smelled delicious because she was an amazing cook, and they hadn’t always been broke, because Mum had had a full-time job people actually paid her for, unlike Aunt Patience with her painting or poor Barney with his acting. But she was gone, killed by a fast and horrible illness four years earlier when Alice was seven, her ashes scattered in the garden and a white rosebush planted in her memory right where Alice was standing now, which was the exact spot where they had loved to sit together on summer evenings to read bedtime stories. Alice came here often to talk to her mother.

  The bush was set against a wall, and it was strong and graceful, just like Mum had been, and covered in a riot of little pink buds which, when they opened, turned into big blowsy white roses. It was unthinkable never to see it flower again.

  Alice picked up a stick and began to dig.

  Patience, arriving on the scene a few minutes later, watched her with despair and wondered, yet again, if she had been wrong to sell the house.

  Once a cheerful, outgoing girl, since her mother’s death all Alice ever wanted was to stay at home to read and write. She wrote all the time, but most of all when Barney was away, filling the notebooks Patience bought her with stories she would present to him on his return. He was the only person who was allowed to read them. Alice worshipped her father, never questioning his long absences but clinging firmly to the belief that one day he would be a great actor. And they could have carried on like this forever—Alice scribbling away and not going out, and Barney traveling but not saying why, and Patience in the attic painting pictures nobody wanted to buy—except that Patience had snooped and read some of Alice’s stories.

  The stories were wild and sad and funny and beautiful. Until she read them, all Patience had wanted was to keep Alice safe and fed and well. After reading the stories, it became her secret wish to help Alice live as passionately as she wrote. And the more she thought about it, the clearer it became to her that what was needed was a complete break with the past. She was sure she was right—most of the time—almost sure—probably right. For weeks now, she had lain awake at night convincing herself . . . but when she saw her niece do things like try to dig up a rosebush with a stick, she did wonder if it was—well—kind, to take a young girl away from the only home she had ever known.

  Alice never talked about her emotions—never talked much at all, in fact, her one-word exit from the kitchen being a typical example—but she couldn’t hide them. Her eyes blazed with anger as Patience approached, even as she scrunched her nose to keep from crying.

  “I’m not leaving without her,” she said.

  Patience sighed, knowing there would be no room in her small car for a rosebush. She looked around for Barney. Barney—as usual when there was something difficult to do—had disappeared. She would just have to tell Alice it wasn’t possible.

  A clean break, Patience thought.

  Then, seeing the determined set of Alice’s chin, Sometimes you just have to make room.

  “There are still tools in the shed,” she said. “I didn’t see any point in getting rid of them. I’ll get a spade, and we can dig it up properly. We’ll have to cut it back, mind. Then we can put it in a pot.”

  “Her,” Alice corrected, scrabbling away with her stick again. “Mum. We can put Mum in a pot.”

  It sounded funny, but neither of them laughed.

  * * *

  Goodbye! whispered the cherry trees. Goodbye, goodbye, from the sprawling attics with Patience’s art studio and the den where Alice liked to write, from the banisters Mistlethwaite children always slid down and the green-tiled fireplace where they roasted chestnuts. Alice walked silently through every room, and heard the house’s farewell in everything she touched.

  It had nothing to do with pipes and chimneys.

  They finished packing the car. It didn’t take long, because they didn’t have much—a few suitcases of clothes, a crate of crockery, some books, a silver teapot. Pictures, rugs, a vase.

  A rosebush in a pot.

  It wasn’t a lot to show for over a hundred years.

  They took one last look at the dear old house and squeezed into the car. For a wild, hopeful moment, Alice thought it wouldn’t start, but then there was the familiar crunch of gravel beneath the tires, and they were driving through the wooden gates they would never drive through again, and they were in the lane, and there was the little bridge over the stream in which they had all paddled, and now they were turning onto the main road, and the house was gone, and there was a prick of blood on her arm where the rosebush had scratched her. She sucked the scratch to make the bleeding stop, and thought that if this were a story, she would make the rose or the car or even the blood into a portal to another world, one where cures were found to keep mothers alive and aunts did not inexplicably sell houses. But this wasn’t a story, just people in a car, driving toward an unknown and terrifying future.

  “To new adventures!” Barney cried, brandishing the silver teapot. “This is going to be fun!”

  There would be no room for Barney in her story. There never was. Barney, for Alice, was above stories.

  The Mistlethwaites don’t see the Brown-Watsons’ moving van when it passes, or the Brown-Watsons’ people carrier that follows, and just as well. They don’t want to know about Brown-Watson children tearing upstairs to fight over bedrooms, or Brown-Watson adults talking about which trees to fell, or Brown-Watson Labradors digging holes in the garden. And neither do we, frankly. Our story is with the Mistlethwaites, and we are going with them to London to put Alice on a train.


  The End of the World

  Possibly, when you think of railway stations in major cities, you imagine high ceilings and giant clocks and everywhere the thrill of adventures about to begin. Jesse Okuyo—currently at London Euston Station, lugging his orange Stormy Loch Academy rucksack and his empty violin case after his three older brothers down the dark, poky platform of the Scottish sleeper train—would have loved such a station. Another lonely kid, at the age of just turned twelve, Jesse longed for adventure. One of his favorite things was to stride about the countryside with a map and a compass and binoculars, pretending to be a great explorer. Other favorite things included video games in which he got to destroy lots of monsters, books in which he could choose the ending, and stories about ancient heroes and medieval knights. Sometimes, when he read these, he substituted his name for theirs.

  Jesse Okuyo slayed the dragon!

  Jesse Okuyo charged into battle!

  Reality was different.

  Reality right now was distinctly unheroic, thanks to his brothers, who had all done this journey many times when they were students at Stormy Loch. Jared had stolen his violin and was skipping along ahead of him, playing a rowdy Scottish ballad. His brother Jed was dancing, and Jeremy was singing. People were staring. Some were taking photographs. They clearly thought this was very picturesque and charming. Maybe you do too. Jesse just wished his brothers were normal. And also not so good at singing, and dancing, and violin playing, or so good-looking, or so tall. Jesse was tall too, but next to them he felt like a hobbit.

  His brothers had arrived at his car, were surroundin
g the smiling attendant, still playing and singing and dancing.

  “What’s the matter, little brother?” Jed crowed when Jesse caught up. “Don’t you like our sendoff?”

  “You know I don’t,” Jesse muttered as he pushed past them to climb aboard.

  “WHAT?” cried Jed, leaping on after him.

  “HE DOOOOESN’T LIKE OUR SENDOOOOFFFF!” sang Jeremy, bouncing on next.

  Jared switched from the ballad to a tragic lament.

  They waited until Jesse had struggled out of his rucksack, and then they pounced. Jeremy got him in a headlock. Jed began to tickle him. Jared moved on from the lament to a fast and furious jig. Jesse yelled, and swore, and tried to punch them. They didn’t hear the commotion outside as the Mistlethwaites arrived, Aunt Patience in an apple-green coat waving Alice’s ticket, Barney carrying an orange rucksack just like Jesse’s, Alice herself clutching the battered copy of her favorite book, Journey to the River Sea, which she had read all the way in the car.

  “Are we late?” cried Aunt Patience to the attendant (the Mistlethwaites were always late). “We got lost!” (The Mistlethwaites were always getting lost.)

  The attendant informed them they had five minutes.

  Onto the train the Mistlethwaites bundled, straight into the knot of laughing, fiddle-playing, roaring Okuyos blocking the narrow corridor outside Jesse’s compartment.

  “Let me go!” Jesse’s voice was muffled, his face buried in Jeremy’s belly.

  “Not until you pee!” shouted Jed. “He pees when he’s tickled,” he informed the bewildered Mistlethwaites.

  It was too much. With a final roar, Jesse threw off his captors and flung himself into his berth. For a few brief, appalled seconds before he slammed shut the door, he and Alice stared at each other.

  “I think you two are going to the same school,” murmured Aunt Patience.

  Then BANG! went the door, and Jesse sank to the ground with his head on his knees.

  Be careful what you wish for, they say.

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