Is this the party?
Lockdown regulations put us all into dangerously close companionship with our families, – a situation that might have been gleefully imagined by Joan Aiken in her collection The Serial Garden – a series of fantasy stories that gave a magical twist to her own childhood, and the trials of family life.
Joan Aiken’s stories about The Armitages – slyly linked to stories her stepfather Martin Armstrong was writing for the BBC Children’s Hour – began as a tongue in cheek parody but turned into lifelong companions, celebrating a family who always dealt with the vicissitudes of life with charm and good humour, and just a little magic…
Even when the parents are turned into ladybirds, in Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, or the family cat becomes a wolf, or when they are sharing their bathroom with a ghost, or their garden with unicorns, nothing seems to disturb them for long, but in these days of lockdown, or sheltering at home – how would they fare?
In one story, The Apple of Trouble, Mark and Harriet are left at home in the care of their tetchy and very old-fashioned Great Uncle Gavin while their parents are away, and he proceeds to take them firmly in hand.
“Little gels should be seen and not heard,” he boomed at
Harriet, whenever she opened her mouth. To get her out from
underfoot, he insisted on her enrolling in a domestic
science course run by a Professor Grimalkin, who had
recently come to live in the village.
As for Mark, he had hardly a minute’s peace.
“Bless my soul, boy”—nearly all Great-uncle Gavin’s
remarks began with this request—“Bless my soul, what are you
doing now? Reading? Bless my soul, do you want to grow up a
“A muff, Great-uncle? What is a muff, exactly?” And Mark
pulled out the notebook in which he was keeping a glossary of
“A muff, why, a muff is a—a funk, sir, a duffer, a frowst, a
tug, a swot, a miserable little sneaking milksop!”
Mark was so busy writing down all these words that he
forgot to be annoyed.
“You ought to be out of doors, sir, ought to be out playin’
“But you need twenty-two people for that,” Mark pointed
out, “and there’s only Harriet and me. Besides it’s summer. And
Harriet’s a bit of a duffer at French cricket.”
“Don’t be impident, boy! Gad, when I was your age, I’d have
been out collectin’ birds’ eggs.”
“Birds’ eggs,” said Mark, scandalized. “But I’m a subscribing
member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.”
“Butterflies, then,” growled his great-uncle.
Mark is presented with a bicycle on which he is ordered to take his daily exercise, even in the pouring rain, but by a stroke of luck just when he is at the end of his tether, he meets a man who offers to exchange the bike for a golden apple.
“Nice, eh?” the little man said, giving the apple to Mark,
who nearly dropped it on the floor. It must have weighed at least
“Is it real gold all through?” he asked. “Must be quite valuable.”
“Valuable?” the man said impressively. “Such apple is
beyond price. You, of course, well-educated, familiar with Old
Testament tale of Adam and Eve?”
“W-why, yes,” Mark said, stammering a little. “But you—you
don’t mean to say that apple—?”
“Self same one,” the little man said, nodding his head.
“Original bite marks of Adam and Eve before apple carried out
of Eden. Then—see stain? Blood of Abel. Cain killed him for
apple. Stain will never wash off.”
“Goodness,” Mark said.
But his Uncle is not impressed when Mark relates what the little man has told him about the Golden Apple’s long and powerful history:
Great-uncle Gavin nearly burst a blood vessel when he learned
that Mark had exchanged his new bicycle for an apple, albeit a
“Did what—merciful providence—an apple?—Hesperides?
Eden? Asgard? Never heard such a pack of moonshine in all me
born—let’s see it, then. Where is it?”
Mark produced the apple and a curious gleam lit up Uncle
“Mind,” he said, “don’t believe a word of the feller’s tale,
but plain that’s val’ble; far too val’ble an article to be in your
hands, boy. Better give it here at once…
Mark felt curiously relieved to be rid of the apple, as if a load
had been lifted from his mind as well as his pocket.
He ran upstairs, whistling. Harriet, as usual, was in her room
mixing things in retorts and crucibles. When Uncle Gavin, as in
duty bound, asked each evening what she had been learning that
day in her domestic science course, she always replied briefly,
“Spelling.” “Spellin’, gel? Rum notion of housekeepin’ the johnny
seems to have. Still, daresay it keeps you out of mischief.” In
fact, as Harriet had confided to Mark, Professor Grimalkin was
a retired alchemist who, having failed to find the Philosopher’s
Stone, was obliged to take in pupils to make ends meet.
However the Apple of Discord is soon discovered by its true owners (calling themselves The Kindly Ones, but looking most alarming with bats’ wings and snakes for hair) who arrive on the doorstep and refuse to leave without avenging their loss:
“And what did you wish to see Sir Gavin about?” Mark knew
his great-uncle hated to be disturbed once he was settled in the
evening with a glass of port and The Times.
“We attend him who holds the apple.”
“There is blood on it—a brother’s blood, shed by a
“It cries for vengeance.”
“Oh, I see!” said Mark, beginning to take in the situation.
Now he understood why the little man had been so anxious for a
Then the three wolfish ladies disconcertingly burst into a
sort of hymn, shaking tambourines and beating on them with
brass-studded rods which they pulled out from among their
“We are the daughters
Of darkness and time
We follow the guilty
We punish the crime
Nothing but bloodshed
Will settle old scores
So blood has to flow and
That blood must be yours!”
Harriet puts her home ‘Spelling’ lessons to good use to create a friendship philtre to attempt to make the ‘Kindly Ones’ see reason, while Mark makes a bow and arrows of horn to discourage the visitors – but things don’t go entirely to plan…
By the time the Armitage parents are due to return home and Great Uncle Gavin is despatched back to his life abroad, the house is more or less returned to normal, except that the three ladies seem to have enjoyed their visit and sometimes return to sleep in the coal cellar.
And Mark and Harriet and their friendly ghost
have their home to themselves at last.
* * * * *
Story from Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden, the complete Armitage Family stories
Illustrations by Andi Watson in the US and Peter Bailey in the UK