By A.M. Howell
CHAPTER 1: New Home
Clara’s secret weighed heavy in the pocket of her pinafore apron, as her boots crunched down the gravel path to Gardener’s Cottage. Her nose crinkled. It was a house that didn’t look like a house. One end of the cottage was built into a high red-brick wall which enclosed three sides of the kitchen gardens, separating them from the rest of the Earl’s grand country estate. A brown door was fitted into the wall at an angle, like a picture which had been given a gentle push to the right and never been straightened. Above it, a diamond-paned window gazed like a watchful eye over the sloping patchwork of vegetable plots, tumbledown scarecrows and apple trees weighed with fruit.
Mrs Gilbert, the Earl’s housekeeper, trudged up the path ahead of Clara. Her wavy speckled-with-grey hair was pinned neatly under her cloth hat. Clara patted at her own hair. Her auburn curls fell messily over her shoulders. Was that why Mrs Gilbert’s forehead had puckered when she had arrived?
Clara turned and stared into the gardens. They were larger than the largest park in her home town, sloped this way and that as if the ground could not make up its mind which way to go. Along the southern perimeter of the gardens there was no walled boundary, but there was a small lake which shimmered in the early October sun. Four glass hothouses of varying sizes stood in the centre. Condensation steamed up the large windows, fat leaves pressing against them like they were trying
to escape. A man with a stooped back was whistling loudly and out of tune as he pushed a barrow-load of burnt-orange pumpkins and green marrows along a path between the hothouses towards her. Two younger men were chatting in the orchard, the rise and fall of their voices chiming with the soft thud of apples as they dropped them into wicker baskets. To her left, another man was huffing and puffing as his fork turned over the soil in a planting bed.
Just then, the man pushing the barrow saw Clara looking and gave her a cheery wave.
She was about to wave in reply when Mrs Gilbert’s voice, tight with irritation, rang across the gardens. “Come along, Clara.”
The man with the barrow lowered his head and walked on.
Mrs Gilbert opened the brown door. It was unlocked. Clara’s throat tightened, as did her grasp on her secret, as she followed Mrs Gilbert into a dingy hallway.
Clara swallowed and put her small case down on the tiled floor. At the end of the hall stood a man whose coal-black bushy hair tickled the low cottage ceiling. He pushed a notebook and stubby pencil into his trouser pocket and gave Mrs Gilbert a soft look filled with words which Clara didn’t understand. He sighed. Sorrow? Disappointment? Something else entirely? Whichever it was, Clara was certain it was somehow connected with her arrival.
“You remember Mr Gilbert, my husband?” Mrs Gilbert said in a thin voice.
Clara nodded and did her best to force her lips into a smile. It had been 1913 when the Gilberts had last been to visit Clara and her family in Kent. That was three years ago, and she had only a handful of memories of this man whose ruddy middle-aged cheeks told a story of a life spent outdoors working as the head gardener on the Earl’s estate. A piggyback ride around the park on a blustery day. The telling-off from her mother when she and Mr Gilbert had dipped their fingers into a pan of still-warm blackcurrant jam. The deep grooves in his cheeks from his near-permanent smile. Clara swallowed. The grooves were still there but the smile wasn’t. “Hello,” she said. Her voice was dry and cracked after her two long train journeys.
Mr Gilbert nodded. He stood and looked at Clara for a few seconds. “Welcome,” he said. His voice reminded Clara of her mother’s coconut cake – slightly gritty but edged with softness. He opened his mouth as if to say something else, then, apparently thinking better of it, he turned, his hair gathering a drifting cobweb on the ceiling (and perhaps a dead fly or two) and disappeared through another door at the end of the hall. The sound of cupboard doors opening and shutting, a table being laid for tea, made Mrs Gilbert purse her lips and fiddle with the cuffs of her navy woollen jacket.
Clara glanced at the remains of the cobweb swaying in the breeze from the still-open front door behind her. It wasn’t the welcome her parents had said she would get or that she had been expecting. Her shoulders sagged.
“Keep away from the woods. The Earl is allowing the Suffolk Rifles Regiment to camp there. Do not distract the housemaids or gardeners with idle chit-chat. Under no circumstances are you to go near the Earl’s hothouses or summer house – or speak or make eye contact with the Earl if you see him. The other cottage in the wall near the top of the gardens is The Bothy – where the under-gardeners and gamekeepers sleep. You can keep away from that too. While you are here, just…try and make yourself…useful.” Each barked instruction chimed in time with Mrs Gilbert’s thick stockinged ankles as she stomped up the wooden stairs. At the top, she turned. Her wide face was puce, the same colour as her work-worn housekeeper’s fingers.
Clara tried to remember the barrage of words which had just been flung at her, but they flitted from her ears like moths and flew out of the door behind her.
“Are you listening, Clara? Shut the door behind you! Just like your father, always leaving them open.”
“Yes, Aunt,” Clara replied meekly, closing the door. Chinks of spades in soil, the laughter and chatter and busyness of the gardeners – all this was replaced with a silence which squeezed the air from Clara’s lungs. The paper in her pocket pricked at her little finger, begging to be taken out and examined. Clara wondered if her aunt had truly gone, if she was finally alone, or if the woman was hovering there somewhere at the top of the stairs. “Later,” she whispered under her breath to the paper. It didn’t reply.
“You may call me Mrs Gilbert,” Mrs Gilbert said in a voice so low it seemed to slither down the stairs and curl around Clara’s feet like a snake.
Clara clenched her toes until they ached, wishing the snake would vanish.
“I’ll show you your room,” Mrs Gilbert said, her voice still sour, but less serpentine than before.
Pushing her secret deeper within the folds of her pocket, Clara gritted her teeth, picked up her small suitcase and followed Mrs Gilbert upstairs.
CHAPTER 2: The Boy
Sinking onto the lumpy bed, Clara took a deep breath. She thought of Father’s back, straight as a rail, the shock of dark wavy hair that Mother was always trying to flatten. It seemed impossible that her father and this Mrs Gilbert were related – yet somehow, they were.
Father never spoke much of his older sister. But when he did, it was with fondness – stories of golden laughter-filled summers making tree houses and damming bubbling streams. Mrs Gilbert had greeted Clara three years ago with a warm hug and a punnet of ruby-red raspberries she had brought with her all the way from Suffolk. There had been no raspberries or a hug this time, just a stiff nod and a thin-lipped (and not at all generous) smile.
“Do you remember your Aunt Elizabeth who works for an earl in Suffolk? She and her husband will take you in for a while, until things are better here,” Mother had said to Clara a few days before.
Clara had felt her face drop like a stone falling over a cliff. Over the past week Father’s cough had worsened. Mother was often found sitting at his bedside, holding his hand. Sometimes when Clara walked past their bedroom door, their whispered conversations would halt. Her mother would click the door shut and Clara’s heart would feel like it was curling into a tight knot. Father didn’t like closed doors. “Doors and windows are the key to a home’s soul,” he would say. “If you are feeling sad, open them to release your melancholy. If you are feeling happy, open them to let the world embrace your joy.” Doors and windows were always flung wide at home. Even in the middle of winter Father liked to breathe in the frosty morning air. Until the Great War. Until he got gas poisoning.
“It will only be for a short while,” Mother had said, as she bent to stroke Neptune the cat. Neptune had purred and slinked around Mother’s legs.
“A while,” Clara had repeated. She had never been away from home before. And Suffolk must be very far away, for her aunt had not visited them for a long time. “But…what about school? I should stay here, help you look after Father. He is getting better, isn’t he?”
Mother had lifted her head, given Clara a thin smile. “Father is going to stay in Devon. The air will be better there. He needs to convalesce. I am going too. It will only be for a short while,” she had repeated. Then she had begun to prepare tea. The skin under her eyes was dark, like it had been smudged with dust from the coal pan. Clara longed to turn the dust into diamonds, to see her mother’s eyes shine and laugh like they used to. But that hadn’t happened since the day Clara didn’t want to think about.
“Try not to worry, Clara. I will write to you whenever I can. Look on this as a little adventure. We will all be together again soon.” When Mother said this last bit, her eyes had glazed over and the kettle had hissed and wobbled and boiled on the stove until Clara had picked up a dishcloth, lifted it off and placed it on the hotplate.
Clara shut the door on her memories and slid the envelope from her pocket. She lay it on the pillow beside her. Where to hide it? She remembered the scarecrows she had passed in the garden, stuffing spilling from their split coats. She examined her mattress. It was old, one of the seams coming loose on the underside. Clara carefully unpicked the thread, slid in the envelope, patted the mattress stuffing around it and let the blankets fall over it like a cloak.
Her envelope hidden, Clara stood up and greeted her new room. Father said it was always polite to say hello to your new surroundings. It used to make her giggle whenever they had visited somewhere new. “Hello, museum. Thank you for having us,” he would say as they walked through the enormous doors, Clara skipping beside him. “Hello, paintings. Hello, statues. Hello, hello, hello.”
Clara placed her hands on the rough whitewashed plaster of the attic room. “Hello, wall.”
“Hello there,” she said to a gnarly wooden table with a wobbly leg.
“Hello,” she said, picking up a crocheted blanket folded on the end of her bed and holding it to her cheek. Clara thought about her bedroom at home, with its small wooden shelf filled with books, which was also home to her teddy bears and dolls (who were like old friends she could not bear to say goodbye to). She had not brought many things from home. Her worn copy of The Jungle Book. Some writing paper, a nib pen and a bottle of ink, so she could write to her mother and father. In her rush to pack she had forgotten to bring a teddy or a doll. A lump leaped to her throat as she thought about her stuffed friends sitting at home, waiting for her to return.
Her own house had only one flight of stairs and the bedrooms were so close together that the voices of her family were never far away. As the silence of the attic surrounded her, she had a strong sense that things would be different here.
Taking a deep breath, she looked up at the grainy attic beams and the ceiling (which slanted so steeply she could only stand upright in the centre of the room). “Oh, hello to you too,” she said to a family of spindly spiders clinging to their webs between the oak-brown beams. Mother was scared of spiders and swatted at their webs with a feather duster until their gauzy patterns and hard work dissolved into nothing. Clara smiled. The spiders could stay. It would be nice to have some company in the eaves of this unfamiliar house.
She greeted the diamond-paned window last. Clara squeaked the glass clean with the edges of her apron, undid the catch and pushed it open. She took in a breath of early evening air, her eyes following the winding brick wall. The windows of the hothouses were dulling in the fading light. As she watched, the door of one opened outwards. A brief halo of steam, like dragon’s breath, surrounded a boy. Clara leaned out of the window as far as she dared. His cap was pulled low over his face, but he looked about thirteen – maybe a year older than she was. Clara glanced around for the gardeners she had seen when she had arrived, but all was quiet aside for some crows ignoring the scarecrows and bravely pecking at the vegetable tops.
The boy was jumpy; he seemed like a hare about to bolt. He looked to his left and right. Then his eyes flicked upwards and met hers.
Clara sucked in a breath and dipped down out of sight.
“Clara,” Mrs Gilbert called. “Come and help me prepare tea.” Her voice sounded quite cross, the same colour as her cheeks and fingers.
Clara stood up slowly and peered over the sill of the window. She blinked. The boy had gone, evaporated into the evening air just like the steam.
October, 1916. Clara has been sent to stay with her aunt and uncle while England is at war. But when she reaches their cottage on an enormous country estate, Clara is plunged into a tangle of secrets… A dark, locked room, a scheming thief, and a mysterious boy who only appears at night.
Clara has a secret of her own too – a terrible one about her brother, fighting in the war. And as the secrets turn to danger, Clara must find the courage to save herself, and those around her…
Secrets, mystery and bravery meet in this gripping historical adventure.
“Exactly the kind of book I love to curl up with. . . full of skilfully layered secrets”
Andy Shepherd, author of The Boy Who Grew Dragons
“An impressive debut with a gripping plot as well as authentic historical detail.”
The Daily Mail
After completing a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, A.M. Howell now writes policy documents for local government. In 2015, she was one of 15 writers selected to take part in the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course, tutored by children’s author Catherine Johnson. A.M. Howell lives in rural Suffolk with her husband and two sons, and was inspired to write The Garden of Lost Secrets by the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
“Fans of Emma Carroll will adore this historical tale of derring-do and righted wrongs.”
“[A] thrilling tale set on a country estate in World War One.”
The Mail on Sunday
“A mysterious locked room, missing pineapples and ghostly sightings in the hothouse are just some of the puzzles city girl Clara find herself trying to solve in this thrilling tale set on a country estate in World War One.”
Mail on Sunday
“Crammed with mystery and secrets against the backdrop of war.”
“A touching story about courage and friendship.”
The Daily Telegraph
“Atmospheric, full of period detail and, most importantly, thrilling.”
“An enchanting adventure… cleverly created, full of secrets, mystery and memorable characters, and with an exquisite coming-of-age story at its heart.”
Lancashire Evening Post
“A stunningly atmospheric story etched in secrets, friendship and pineapples.”
Polly Ho-Yen, author of Boy in the Tower
“This is exactly the kind of book I love to curl up with. A wonderfully tender, atmospheric story, full of skilfully layered secrets.”
Andy Shepherd, author of The Boy Who Grew Dragons
“There are echoes of Tom’s Midnight Garden in this historic mystery.”
Gardners, Children's Top Ten for June 2019
“For any child who loves the kind of book filled with locked rooms and many secrets, plus a healthy dose of historical fiction (it's set during the war, in 1916).”
Visit Usborne Quicklinks to download teacher's notes with discussion topics and classroom activities structured around the UK National Curriculum for this book.
There are also links to websites where you can find out more about England during the First World War, the period when the events in this book took place, and see the grand country estate that inspired the story.