The Secret of Oak (Part 1)

by Holly Stacey -

It was raining again – Elspeth was tired of rain. It had rained every day for the past two and a half months – ever since the news said it was a drought. Now the garden looked like a swamp. But she would not be deterred. She was going out.

“Darling! Don’t get your new dress wet!” her mother called from the kitchen. Elspeth had no intention of getting any part of her wet, so she pulled a huge umbrella out of the stand at the door. The stand had been something Father brought back from India when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. It looked like an elephant’s leg and she always both hated and felt intrigued by it.

Gently, she pulled the front door open and then lifted the black umbrella overhead, careful to open it out of doors. Everyone knew it was terribly unlucky to open an umbrella inside the house.

The raindrops were heavy and came down thick. It was less like actual rain and more like standing under a giant waterfall. But Elspeth was determined. It was very dark outside considering it was just after noon. She’d spent all morning helping Cook prepare high tea – it was cucumber sandwiches again and she hated cucumber. Just because they were wealthy enough to have a greenhouse to grow them in, her mother held parties every weekend to show off the cucumbers. They had an orangery too, but the oranges weren’t ripe yet. Now Mother was making a fuss over how much sugar Cook should put in the sponge cakes. Rain was bliss in comparison to what was happening at the house.

Elspeth set off in the rain, her ankle boots splashing in the puddles. But where should she go first? Usually, she went to the pond to feed the ducks (the family estate had rather extensive grounds) but she had no bread with her today. Tomorrow however, she’d have loads of leftover cucumber sandwiches to give them.

“Where are you off to?” a gruff voice asked from behind her brolly.

Elspeth grinned as she turned.  It was Gregson, the gardener (also her co-conspirator as he too hated cucumbers). “I had to get away from the mini green monsters,” she said with her usual co-conspiratorial wink.

“Too right you are petal, awful foreign things... almost bad as those citrus plants. Not like these beautiful roses,” he said, pointing his trowel over the expanse of rose bushes that dotted the courtyard.

“I was going to look for something interesting,” she said, eyeing the roses. If they were in bloom, she’d help Gregson pick them.

He laughed in his gravelly way. “Just beware of the oak,” he said with a wink. “On rainy days, with the moon high behind a dark, dark sky, the oak will speak and ‘bye an bye, those that listen shall learn to fly...”

“What does that mean?” Elspeth suddenly felt as if the day could hold a twinkle of excitement. Gregson rarely waxed lyrical about anything other than roses.

“Means... magic,” he said with a wink before turning to his roses.

Elspeth smiled and waved goodbye but Gregson was already hard at work pulling weeds and muttering to himself about native plants being the best, and oaks were almost as good as roses. She loved the roses in the courtyard, but they weren’t good company on a rainy day. She thought as she briskly walked away from the house.

She walked past the pond and shouted hello at the ducks. They quacked at her as she walked by, hoping vainly for bread. She walked past the paddocks and said hello to the horses. They perked their ears up and trotted towards her in hopes of some sugar lumps but they too were disappointed. She kept walking... and walking... and walking. Until... she came to the gates.

“This is it,” she said aloud. “Do I leave home and keep walking until I find something interesting, or do I play safe and stay here?” She didn’t know what she was going to do. She wasn’t supposed to leave the grounds and she didn’t really ever have any reason to, so she turned around and looked behind her.

She could see the manor house looking grand, the gardens wonderfully wet and blissfully unaware of things like cucumber sandwiches. There was a path right that would take her to the summer house, or she could take the path left towards the old mill. Or, she could just go back the way she came. She turned left.

The old mill was a lovely place – especially because it was so hidden and quiet. She could play there undiscovered, hide secrets, make fairy boats and float them downstream, or just lay back and daydream. There wasn’t much left of the old mill itself; just a few mossed-over stones for the foundations and bits of rusted iron by the stream. Elspeth loved to listen to the trickle of the stream.

But today was different. When she got to the old mill, she felt like something was missing. Not just because the hem of her skirt had become wet and a little muddy (her mother was going to be livid) but because she was feeling the need for some company. She looked up into the clouds of rain – if they weren’t here, it would be a full moon. Her skin prickled when she remembered Gregson’s poem.

She’d never felt lonely before, but right then she just wanted to hear another voice; as long as it didn’t involve the making of cucumber sandwiches or kitchen arguments. She was about to turn around and head back towards the gardener, when some light caught the corner of her eye.

Come this way...

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