The Ghastly Gerty Swindle With the Ghosts of Hungryhouse Lane

SAM McBRATNEY

The Ghastly Gerty Swindle with the Ghosts of Hungryhouse Lane

Illustrated by Lisa Thiesing

HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY • NEW YORK

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

  
1
•
Miss Amy and the Sweet Kids

  
2
•
Gertrude “Elizabeth” Moag

  
3
•
A Bandage for Bonnie

  
4
•
Why
Not
the Attic?

  
5
•
The Arrival of the Sweet Kids

  
6
•
An Interview with Spooks

  
7
•
Tongue Sandwiches

  
8
•
Alexander the Grate

  
9
•
“They've Got Lulubelle …”

10
•
Clues

11
•
Fire!

12
•
Tick Tock, Look in the Clock

13
•
Chief Suspect Phones Sick Mother

14
•
A Bandage for Gertrude

15
•
Praise for the Parents

Copyright

1 …

Miss Amy and the Sweet Kids

Amy Steadings lived with three ghosts in Hungryhouse Lane, near the quiet village of Tunwold.

Amy was getting on in years. One day she strained her hip while carrying coal and could no longer get upstairs to clean and polish the way she used to do. The time had come, Amy decided, to put an ad in the paper and get a nice lady companion to live with her.

This was not an easy advertisement to write, for Amy wanted to attract the right kind of person—someone who enjoyed country life and who wasn't afraid of … well, of the
unusual.

Oh dear, she thought. This could be tricky. People sometimes behave rather strangely when they hear the word “ghost.” It's not quite the same as having bats or mice.

Amy had inherited the house and its ghosts from
an old friend, and she firmly believed that it was her responsibility to look after them properly. She had never mentioned them to a living soul, so no one knew they were there—no one, that is, except for the children who had lived in the house for a few weeks before Amy took it over. Such interesting children! Their names were Zoe Sweet, Charlie Sweet and Bonnie Sweet. They hadn't been in the least dismayed to find spooks in the attic. They'd been overjoyed!

But they were
children.
And Amy was quite certain that children could be tougher than grown-ups when it came to … well, the
unusual.

After some deep thinking she decided that it would be silly to mention the ghosts in her ad. Eventually she settled on a form of words that pleased her:

Elderly lady seeks companion to help with the cleaning of seventeenth-century house, also for cooking and conversation. An interest in country life is essential for this position. Full board and weekly wage. Please apply with references to the address below.

There, thought Amy as she licked a stamp. That was quite enough information for the time being. When her new companion had settled in, perhaps the subject of the ghosts could be discussed over a cup of tea.

She placed the letter behind the mantelpiece clock for posting.

The Sweet kids (of whom Amy Steadings had just been thinking) had recently moved into a new house far away from Hungryhouse Lane.

Actually, it was more of a mansion. Many of the sixteen rooms had a telephone or a television set, and around the back there were beautiful gardens, a fine big swimming pool, and stables for five horses. The house was so new that the gardens had no grass, the pool had no water, and the stables had no horses.

The Sweet family had plenty of money. After winning a fortune in the national lottery, Mr. Sweet gave up his job, saying to his friends, “This is not going to change us at all, of course; we shall still be the same people underneath.” It was lucky that he used that word “underneath,” because on the surface Mr. and Mrs. Sweet changed completely, and they changed overnight. Money did not change their attitude to backgammon, however. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet were addicted to that game, and often discussed each other's play in rather heated tones.

Such a discussion was happening right now in the smallest of the three reception rooms.

“Two double fives,” said Mr. Sweet. “I ask you, two blasted double fives in a row! They cost me that game, you know.”

“I don't think so,” said Mrs. Sweet with a superior smile. “My strategy was to block you in and that's what happened. I blocked you in.”

“Strategy! Piffle!” snapped Mr. Sweet.

The door opened and their eldest daughter appeared, glowering. Zoe could glower better than anyone in the family.

“Mommy, he's juggling the pears again and dropping them violently on the kitchen floor.”

“We're in the middle of backgammon, Zoe dear,” said Mrs. Sweet. “What does it matter if he drops a pear or not?”

“Because they'll pick up germs. And they'll bruise and have to be thrown out, and we'll miss out on our natural fiber and vitamin C. Also, it's wasteful and an insult to hungry people in Third World countries.”

Mrs. Sweet glanced meaningfully at Mr. Sweet, who sighed and cried, “Charlie! Stop juggling with the pears.”

The reply came from far away. “Bonnie hid my juggling balls.”

“Bonnie! Give him back his juggling balls.”

“He said my doll Lulubelle picks her nose!”

Up rose Mr. Sweet, determined to nip this latest nonsense in the bud. First he gathered his children together in the hall and spoke to them firmly—Zoe, Charlie, Bonnie (nursing Lulubelle) and Muldoon, the dog.

“Now listen. Nobody can concentrate with that
racket going on. If it continues, there will be no swimming pool. It will sit there empty, without water, forever. Now go and watch TV or read the
Encyclopedia Britannica.

Off he marched with long and energetic strides—the walk of a man who meant every word he said. But Mr. Sweet did not know that Charlie and Bonnie liked the pool empty (it made a jolly good sunken tennis court). Zoe didn't want to swim either—she had plans to turn the pool into a national hospital for sick seals and dolphins. However, they were quiet until after lunch.

The next row broke out when Charlie pointed the TV remote control at Lulubelle and said, “Zap-zap-zap-zap-zap.”

“Stop it!” cried Bonnie, shielding Lulubelle with her arms.

“Stop what?”

“You're switching her off! You did it before and you're doing it again.”

“Where are my juggling balls, then?”

The juggling balls were hiding up a drainpipe in the garden, but Bonnie had no intention of ever telling where they were after Charlie had said at breakfast that Lulubelle picked her nose. She hadn't forgotten those words and she never would forget. The bashed-up, bald-headed ragdoll had survived four birthday parties, but looked about a hundred and three in spite of the brand-new pink satin bows it wore.

Around came the remote control again. Zap!

“MOMMEEE!”

“What is it now?”

“Mommy, he's switching off Lulubelle. He's switching off my Lulubelle with the remote control.”

The excitement in the air made Muldoon howl as if the postman was coming. (He hated the postman with all his heart.) Meanwhile, Charlie had accidentally switched channels, so that Zoe, instead of watching her nature program, saw Popeye swallowing spinach and then beating up Bluto.

“Mommy! The swine is channel-hopping again and I should have been an only
child
!”

Into this din rushed Mr. Sweet with the light of battle flashing in his eyes. “You—up to your room. You—find those juggling balls. You—do the dishes. Into your bed, dog!”

He watched them all go, then returned to the other room, where he sat at the backgammon board for some moments as if to marvel at the silence.

“Geoffrey.”

“Yes, dear?”

“Wouldn't it be a good idea if we sent the children away for a holiday?”

Mr. Sweet knew what his wife meant. They could both do with a break. But who in their right mind would take them? He rolled his dice and got blasted double fives
again.

* * *

Later that day the Sweet kids (including Muldoon) met on the bottom of the empty swimming pool to hear Zoe read the letter they had just received in the mail. It was from Amy Steadings, their friend in Hungryhouse Lane:

Dear Zoe, Charlie and Bonnie,

How are you all? It's so nice to be writing to you again. When are you coming to visit me, I'd like to know? Soon, I hope, now that the holidays have started. From your last letter, Zoe, I see that you are doing a project on ghosts. I wonder what your teacher will make of it! How is the juggling, Charlie? I'm sure you'll soon be good enough to join a circus. Bonnie, did you get the satin bows I sent for Lulubelle?

At this point Bonnie nodded her head, and said “Yes.”

I have taken a lady companion. I'm not so sure that she is suitable, but time will tell. I shall ask her to stay out of the attic for the time being. I'm sure you can all guess why. I haven't seen Lady Cordelia or Sir James for some months. Nor little Bobbie either, of course. I can't get up there now because of my bad hip.

All my love,

Amy.          

P.S., I shall write to your parents and
make
them bring you!

Zoe folded the letter and tucked it under Muldoon's collar. No one spoke for some time, for that letter had brought back quite a few memories of the house in Hungryhouse Lane. Zoe remembered Lady Cordelia McIntyre floating down through the ceiling in her wonderful Cinderella dress. Charlie thought of Bobbie, the shabby little chimney-sweep ghost in bare feet. Bonnie Sweet remembered the night she threw Lulubelle at Sir James, the ghost with the sword and the wig. Lulubelle had gone right through him!

“Well?” said Zoe. “Do we want to go or not? I could interview those spooks for my school project. Yes, I think we might go. What about you, Charlie?”

Charlie thought it over. For his birthday he'd been given a hand-held tape recorder instead of the unicycle and juggling clubs he'd asked for. It might be interesting, he reckoned, to make tapes of sheep sounds and cow sounds and ghost sounds.

Bonnie wasn't sure. “We would like to go,” she said, referring to herself and Lulubelle, “but I don't think she's got a VCR.”

“What about you, Smelly?” Zoe asked Muldoon.

Pleased to get a mention, Muldoon performed a twirl or two and appeared to bark “Yes.”

2 …

Gertrude “Elizabeth” Moag

Mmm,” Gertrude Moag said to herself when she saw the ad. “Lady companion, eh? Seventeenth-century house, if you please, oh la-di-dah! Now, that sounds a bit promising, Gerty, my love.”

But do you like the country, Gerty? she asked herself. And the answer was no. How could you like something that was so empty, wide and green? Not that she minded the odd hanging basket or even a window box with a few pansies in it; but the thought of wearing rubber boots made Gerty's poor toes curl up in horror.

Still, it would do no harm to take a look at the place. She set to one side the woolly sweater she was knitting for her only son and fetched some writing paper. To get the job, she needed a reference.
Gertrude Elizabeth Moag
(she wrote)

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