Droplets was the name given to the farm; burned into a large wooden shingle that hung on the wall at the entrance to the farmyard. The farmyard itself was set at the edge of a cliff so that anyone incautious enough to step out of the farmhouse's back door would have a single stone step on which to regret their decision, and then a fall over over eight hundred feet to a sandy beach below. When he was drunk, which was most mornings as he would wake at three and drink to forget his nightmares, John Clarke the principal farmhand would mutter that the name of the farm was a prediction: that it would take only droplets of rain to push it over the edge itself. As it was raining heavily when Stella arrived at Droplets, and continued to rain for most of the days she was there, she disbelieved him the moment he put this suggestion forth.
She arrived clinging to the back of a produce truck whose driver had stopped to help when her car had broken down in a runnel by the side of a narrow country road. He had offered to let her sit in the truck itself, but the front seat was occupied by two growling alsatians, and the truck body was refrigerated, so she'd bitten down hard on her collection of journalistic swearwords and clung on as tenaciously as old ivy. The journey had been cold and wet and her fingers were blue and claw-hooked when she arrived, but she still surveyed the farmyard with the eyes of someone who thought they were a Jane Austen heroine.
She was quite dismayed to see that the farmyard, though inevitably muddy in places, was well-swept and tidy; rope neatly coiled on hooks, bales of straw stacked carefully against walls and under shelter, and an old but serviceable flat-bed truck parked up near the house. As she sighed, unable to think of anything to improve, the front door opened and old Benedict came out to greet her.
He greeted the produce truck, the cataracts in his eyes being so bad that everything was seen as though in thick fog, and when corrected of his misapprehension he smiled and hugged the produce man. Stella sighed again and walked inside, leaving the man who was probably her maternal grandfather to his misty confusion.
"I saw something nasty in the water closet," said a small, lugubrious child as she walked past it. She paused, wondering if she should be able to determine its sex, but the swaddled clothing and its extreme youth made it impossible for her to guess.
"I saw something nasty in the linen cupboard," said a young girl, dressed a maid, walking past.
"I saw something nasty clinging to the back of the produce truck," said the produce man, who'd come in behind her leading Benedict by the hand, and Stella whirled around, spraying water droplets everywhere, to berate him.
“If I’d wanted to be soaked in my own kitchen I should have bought a dog,” said a cool voice behind her before she could open her mouth, and so she turned again. This time she turned more slowly so that her wet hair slapped lightly against her face and the water droplets simply hazed a little in front of her face. The speaker was an elderly woman, tall and well-dressed. She stood with impressive mien, suggesting that she fully ruled all she surveyed, and her face had a certain smoothness to it that Stella understood to mean that she was much older than she actually looked, but had taken care to conceal it.
“You have four dogs, Great-grandmama,” said the lugubrious child, walking now in the opposite direction and carrying a pie in a china dish.
“Hush child,” said the woman, not taking her eyes off Stella. “None of my dogs would come into the kitchen and shake themselves free of water from their coats. They are too well-trained for that.”
“She said she were comin’ ‘ere,” said the produce man, and Stella considered turning yet again to face him, but then worried that she might seem like a whirling dervish. She’d never seen such a thing, but she’d written four articles on the topic for Sunday supplements and had received a modest amount of appreciative letters that she’d been able to feed to the Editor for the Letters Page over a period of weeks. “So I let her come along. I’d no idea that she would be so ill-mannered, Ms. Fate.”
Ms. Fate! The woman who faced her, whose eyes seemed to be trying to dig into her face and tunnel through her skull to inspect her brain must be Mabel Fate, head of the clan at Droplets Farm!
“No blame attaches,” said Mabel sounding eerily like the I Ching. “I’m sure she seduced you with her London ways.”
“A seduction!” roared Benedict, his voice too loud even for the large kitchen. It echoes from the walls and bounced off the rafters and threatened to rattle the glass in the windows. “Now there’s a thing!”
“Indoor voice, please, Benny,” said Mabel. She spared him a glance, freeing Stella momentarily from her icy gaze, and Benedict subsided, his own near-blind eyes casting to the floor. “Now child, what brings you to Droplets?”
“I sent a letter,” said Stella. She was trying to sound calm, collected and defiant, but she was worrying the whole time that she sounded petulant. “And I received one in return, filled with mysterious references to sexual liaisons and the promises of rights owing to me if I came here. So naturally I came at once. I sent another letter ahead of me, surely you’ve received it?”
“And what is wrong with email anyway?” said Mabel, her words as smooth as new ice on water. “Or a phone-call perhaps? Heavens, I think there’s even still a fax machine in the hall if you’d tried that. The number is on the Droplets Farm website. But either way, I dictated the letter you received myself, and I am certain that what I said was: ‘that if you came here, I’d see you bang to rights’. I imagine in your London hurry you were reading it while rushing through the Underground and managed not only to misread the words but to misunderstand those that percolated through. You are, after all, the Wooden Post’s child, and I am expecting little more than a stump.”
Stella’s mouth gaped like a stunned goldfish, and after a short pause she collected herself and closed it up again. She was sure that the letter was different, and she’d only written out of deference to the fact that these cousins, however remote, lived on a farm! Of course they couldn’t be expected to be modern and moving with the times. And Mabel Fate, legendary dowager, had to be eighty by now, and presumably was scared of televisions, hairdryers and microwaves. Email was unthinkable to a woman like her, surely?
“I was hoping to visit for a while,” she said, aware that it sounded mean and wheedling.
“You were hoping to interfere in family life,” said Mabel, as firm as Stella was indecisive. “It will not happen. I have no desire to incubate adders in the womb.”
“I wanted to ask about that!” said Stella, latching on to something where she felt she might have an edge. “Your name is Mabel Fate, yet the family here are all called Arkstabber. Why is that?”
“There have always been Arkstabbers at Droplets Farm!” said Benedict suddenly, cutting Mabel off before she could speak. “Always!”
“In fact,” said Mabel in the tones of one who has had to explain this more times already than she felt was necessary, “this a New Farm built in the 60s when the government was worrying about too few people living off the land. Before that it was a crematorium, and before that it was the site of two kilns. This explains the local deforestation that made this viable as farmland, and allowed the crematorium to take advantage of the kilns and repurpose them as ovens. We have further repurposed them as small, inadequate granaries, but we they’re apparently listed buildings so we have to do with them what we can without materially affecting them in any way. Since no Arkstabber has been cremated, let alone worked in a crematorium, and kilning is simply not something Arkstabbers do, there has in fact been Arkstabbers at Droplets for only the last 50 years or so. Benny.”
The old man dropped his gaze back to the floor again and looked a mere shadow of himself.
“As for you, young lady,” she continued, “You may call me Great-grandmama only.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” said Stella, endeavouring to protest. Her voice was still weak and reedy in the large kitchen. Only Mabel seemed to have the trick of using the acoustics to add body to her words and reverb to her speeches.
“Then perhaps it will encourage you to think through the rest of what you’re saying before you say it.”