Setting foot on Kennick land to the road was always a perilous risk, and had this not been an emergency of the highest degree, the boys would have probably gone the long way to get back to their homes. It was a bit shorter of a hike, and much less bumpy if they cut across the narrow arm of Kennick pastures that wrapped around their Valley Tredwell plot, and took the gravel road home. Otherwise, they’d have to cross through the Valley Tredwell Farm’s pasture, which was pitted, knobby, and peppered with disgusting dung landmines. The boys hadn’t thought it through, and left Wolfsden forest by the eastern arm, emerging right smack into the Kennick Farm’s herd of Shetland sheep, where Mrs. Kennick was just finishing her final act of exacting torture upon them, the offending syringe still in her hand. Both boys skidded to a halt at the sight of her, eyes wide in terror. Oh the horror!
“Well if it isn’t the Tredwell boys… what are you two up to? Burying treasure, I’ll wager.” Mrs. Kennick was a strange sort of woman. She had silvery hair with lingering touches of blonde that she always had tied back in the same bow-tie barrette every day. If she as out and about the farm, her accessories of choice were some rubber wellies, a quilted green jacket vest and a string of pearls. She always had nice makeup on as well--all put on over her outfit of choice for the day; which were usually either a nice dress, slacks, a wool skirt, turtlenecks or a crisp shirt. If she were vaccinating sheep, or mucking out the cow barn, she always looked lovely, even with muck on her khaki green rubber boots. When in town, she could be counted on to be wearing a pair of sensible heels on her feet, stockings, a nice skirt, and a lovely white blouse with a dark-blue cardigan. One could be easily fooled into believing she was a harmless, genteel sort of creature by looking at her. The boys knew better.
Running into Mrs. Kennick always meant trouble; especially for the Tredwell boys. Mrs. Kennick nearly always needed something done that only smallish, young boys could do. Next thing they knew, she had them climbing rafters up in the barn to extricate a litter of kittens from the hayloft, or scraping moss from the roof, and sometimes even helping her catch escaped piglets. The boys’ parents did not object to her abusing them in this fashion, and hushed them when they returned home, exhausted and complaining. However, there was always a chance they’d escape the labor-duty, and instead be treated to a torturous hour or two of Mrs. Kennick’s fussing. No matter what the circumstances were, if they ran into Mrs. Kennick, the boys knew they were going to be waylaid for some time. If it were Mr. Kennick, he’d greet them with cheer, and if they didn’t move fast enough, he’d lead them straight to his wife, where they’d be detained while she made them plates of muffins and hot cocoa and showed them pictures of their children; who’d long grown up and moved away in a great hurry to escape the constant fussing and slave labour themselves.
At present, the herd of diminutive sheep milled around her nibbling the molasses-soaked grain mix she’d used to lure them into her vaccination trap. She used the same tactics to lure the boys into her clutches using baked treats, but instead of the needle, they got the family photo album. The boys wondered what their fate would be as they stood there, aghast. They watched her cap off the needle and slide it into her puffy vest pocket, where a jumble of others could be seen peeking out.
“You’re just in time, boys, just in time,” she exclaimed. An icy feeling gripped their stomachs. She smiled gregariously. “I just baked three loafs of my famous lemon cake! Oh, it’s SO delicious, you simply must have a slice; I’m sure your treasure hunting can wait for just a moment or two, why don’t you two come along. You, Theo, why don’t you grab that little ewe there so I can finish up, and we’ll be on our way.”
“I’m Marcus Ma’am,” the blond boy protested with a huff. She never remembered.
“Oh, never mind that, Tredwell, just get her before she runs away.” Marcus rolled his eyes and reached out for the vanilla coloured ewe. Shetlands were small sheep and on the most part, manageable to a young boy. The Kennick’s Shetland buck, which went by the name of Jefferson, was a powerfully strong little cur, and when he came running at you with his curly horns lowered, you best climb the nearest tree and pray for the best. He actually fractured Mr. Kennick’s thighbone once. He was at present being kept away from his ladies, which were the reason he was so evil and why he butted anything within a half-mile radius, so they were safe. Away from the ewes, Jefferson was an affable, handsome little puffball, who loved to eat things out of your hands with his floppy funny sheep-lips and to be scratched under his ears.
Marcus was used to handling sheep. His family had a small mixed herd, mostly of larger, far stupider Romney sheep, plus a few horses, two ponies, a llama named Bob and a huge goat that had been bred to carry packs called Chewy who served no other purpose but to eat hay and grain and to nibble at your pockets for snacks. Marcus grabbed the sheep by her wool, and straddled her while Mrs. Kennick moved over and took a final syringe from her arsenal, removed the cap and unceremoniously jabbed it through the thick wool, and right into the sheep’s backside.
“There. All finished,” she declared, capping the syringe and sliding it into her other pocket. “Come along then, boys. I’m so glad you came along when you did. I’m not sure if we could have finished all that cake, just Mr. K and I,” she said in her operatic, singsong voice. She clumped along in her wellies towards the house.
“Why doesn’t she just make less cake then?” Theodore whispered hoarsely to Marcus, who shrugged at this great mystery that his friend posed. They glanced at one another with looks of sad resignation, and shuffled behind her, Theodore still carrying that enigmatic round box.
“Now you know Emery, you both met him a number of times, he’s a good boy. Oh, what am I saying, he’s no little boy any more, I’m so silly, he’s a grown man, but I’ll always see him as my little boy. He was mad about hot-rods when he was young, goodness he must have had two hundred little toy cars, and he made lots of models too, goodness, he used to reek of that glue all the time, I remember…” Mrs. Kennick rattled on. The boys pretended to look at the picture of Emery she’d shown them an impossible number of times throughout their lives; they both knew the image by heart. Emery did come by on occasion, he was a quiet sort of fellow, and it was probably because as he grew up, he was never able to get a word in edgewise.
Mrs. Kennick plunked two plates in front of them. They sat at her crafting table, which was a round table sitting in a nice bright bay window overlooking the front yard, where the peacocks strutted about regally and screeched less pleasantly. The Kennick’s sitting room was large and commodious. The whole house was big, and Mrs. Kennick kept it immaculately clean. Everything inside was old fashioned and dark, and when Mrs. Kennick wasn’t blathering on about this or that, the only other sound was the hollow tick tock of a huge grandfather clock. Occasionally it would start to whir and click, steeling itself up to emit its deafening chime, that even Mrs. Kennick had stop mid-sentence and wait for it to quiet down again.
A fire crackled in the hearth, and Mr. Kennick snored quietly in one of the tall wingback chairs that flanked the warmth. Mrs. Kennick’s prattling didn’t wake him. Marcus and Theodore silently suspected he was pretending to sleep to avoid being dragged into the torture of Mrs. Kennick’s fussing. They boys were temporarily reprieved as Mrs. Kennick had gone back into the kitchen to see to the cocoa.
Theodore had placed the box on its round edge between their two chairs, and he glanced down at it. Marcus broke a piece off of his lemon cake, and popped it into his mouth, pausing for a moment to enjoy it. The creamy icing was heaven. This was the payoff. No matter how torturous these visits and the labor and the fussing could be; Mrs. Kennick’s baked treats were always pure delight. Lemon fragrance filled his mouth and rose up into his nose. Mmmm.
“Is Carlotta even home?” Theo asked. Marcus’s golden eyebrows rose as he thought about it, eating a piece of his cake too. Mrs. Kennick wafted in, and gave them both linen napkins and then vanished again.
“Now that you mention it, aren’t Carlotta and Eugena at Ponyclub this morning?” he looked at the towering clock, whose labored ticking and tocking sounded as if it were a great hardship just to swing the massive pewter-coloured pendulum back and forth. A little snort came from Mr. Kennick as he shifted in his chair. He had tartan wool slippers on, and his feet were resting on a small round ottoman. His face was red and his hair silver-white. He had thick sideburns and wore a knitted vest.
“So we took the shortcut for no reason then,” Theo grumbled. “We had no need to hurry.” He glared at his forsaken piece of delicious yellow lemon cake. Such torment.
“Oh, we’d have taken it anyway,” Marcus dismissed him. “Besides, she’ll be back in about twenty minutes if she doesn’t dawdle.”
“Her and Eugena go wandering, remember?” Theodore said with annoyance. “Stupid sisters.” Marcus couldn’t argue with that last bit. Just then Mrs. Kennick arrived with four mugs filled to the very brim with creamy hot cocoa. She put one down in front of each boy and then brought one to her husband, placing it on a small table by his chair, shaking his arm to wake him.
“Hot cocoa love,” she said. He woke, smiled, grunted, nodded and then promptly dozed off again. She took her own cup off the tray, put the tray on a chair and sat across from the two boys, facing the bay window, cupping her mug in her two hands.
“You’re out of school now, right? Of course, I usually see the four of you pedaling by in the mornings, and you haven’t been doing that recently. You’re free, yes? To roam about. You seem to like that little copse of trees down there around the brook. When I was young, I used to swim in that pond all summer. I’m sure you do too… you probably jump off the great big rock. My boys loved that pond too. All summer they’d be down there, mucking about. Hardly saw them from the start of summer to school began again, really. Could barely get them to stick around long enough to do their chores…” she laughed reflectively, her eyes distant and sweet. The boys sipped their cocoas, watching her warily, nibbling off pieces of their cake. The clock inexorably marked every second of agony with a dogged determination. Tick, tock.
“Did I ever show you the old album?” The boys felt the dread chilling their hearts. There was an old album? If all the ones they’d seen were not called old but were all mind-numbingly antiquated, then what was the old album? Just the thought was too much to bear. She must have mistaken their expressions of abject horror to mean ‘no we haven’t seen it, do show it to us’, and she put her mug down and hopped up from her seat. She opened the cupboard where she kept all her instruments of torment, and withdrew a leather-covered binder they’d never seen before.
“This is an album my mother made of me when I married. It has pictures of all the farms before even your mothers were born. Your grandparents were my friends, and we did all sorts of things together,” she lay the album down on the table and opened up the cover. There was a picture of a very pretty girl, and the boys realized upon closer inspection, that it was Mrs. Kennick before she was Mrs. Kennick. When she was Miss Shaw. She wore a sweet floral dress, and was barefoot, standing on a much recognizable Max the boulder, her hand clutching a low-hanging branch of a younger willow tree than was there now. The picture was in soft sepia tones, and some bits looked blurry and others were crystal clear.
“I remember that day; it was my twelfth birthday,” she whispered; “your grandmother Ella, of the hill farm, and your grandfather Henry of the valley farm were with me; in fact, Henry took this picture. We were all three the best of friends; however like your mothers, Henry and Ella were very, very close.” Mrs. Kennick turned the page. There was a picture of the young Mrs. Kennick, sitting poised and ladylike, her ankles crossed, next to another dark-haired girl in the same position. Both girls were on a bench in the park, hands folded politely in their laps. They had their hair loose on their shoulders, with just a bit tied back in a ribbon. The dark-haired girl was very pretty; dark lashes ringing blue eyes. The boys blinked, their curiosity piqued.
“That’s Ella. She looks like you, Theodore,” the woman reached out and just touched his nose with her fingertip. The boy glanced at Mrs. Kennick with his eyes wide; surprised that for once, she got the name right; and secondly, that he was genuinely interested in the pictures she was showing him.
She pointed to another picture. “Here’s your granddad, Marcus,” she referred to a string bean of a boy; a couple of years older than Marcus in the picture, looking aloof as he stood next to Mrs. Kennick/Miss Shaw for the picture. He had a proper shirt on, with nice slacks and shoes far too shiny to belong to any real boy. He had smooth golden hair like most of the Hill Tredwells did, combed into a neat part.
“It’s a pity they were off at school so much. I only saw them in the summer mostly; and a few days during the year. We all got along so well. I was sure they’d marry, those two, and I was surprised when they each brought home different loves. I suppose they were more like brother and sister. Goodness, I had a frightful crush on your granddad for years!” The boys looked instantly uncomfortable, and Mrs. Kennick took note of it, and smiled, “oh, but then I met Mr. Kennick and I forgot all about that,” waving her hand dismissively.
“Look at them. They’re like night and day, those two. Like you two.”
The boys glanced at one another meaningfully, and then Theo’s eyes wandered down to the round box between them. Mrs. Kennick turned the page, a whimsical smile on her face. She began showing pictures of the farms; all three. But the boys’ minds were occupied elsewhere. They ate their cakes, and endured another forty minutes of narratives from Mrs. Kennick as she relived her younger years for them. And then as they finished their cocoa a familiar sound could be heard from outside. The clatter of small hooves on the gravel road.
“It’s them!” Marcus exclaimed, leaping to his feet. Theodore stood as well, and looked at Mrs. Kennick.
“Sorry Mrs. Kennick, thank you for the cake and cocoa, but we really must go.”
“Of course, boys, of course, it’s always a pleasure to have you here. You’re welcome any time.” She stood and helped Theodore get a better grip of the box. She saw them to the door and waved them all the way down the driveway.