Disappointed, I carried my little bottle outside instead. It had rained in the night, and everything sang with the drip of water. I looked out over the straggly remains of the ornamental yews bordering the herb garden, and felt especially small and alone in such a grand space. It was a huge house for just Dad and me, and I glanced back inside, wondering whether to call out to him, to ask if he'd like to come and play. But Dad, I knew, was busy, and so I stepped gingerly forward, into the unknown.
The unknown, it turned out, was wild and wet, and my trainers soon became woven in soaking grass stems. I swept through the garden, admiring my new green shoes, and stopped briefly to gaze into the moat.
I could sense the gargoyle watching me from the top of the fountain even before I looked at him. He was small and crouched like a monkey, perched in the middle of the moat on the fountain's broken remains. I studied the mischievous leer on his face, trying to decide if he was friend or foe.
When we had arrived, a month before, we had unloaded our suitcases into the garden and sat on the bank, dipping our weary feet in the cool of the moat.
"Don't ever go in the moat without me, Romilly. Do you understand?" Dad had said, his toes sifting the pondweed that coated the surface. "Water can be very dangerous."
I had nodded solemnly. But now, a month later, and much more worldly wise, I crouched down by the water's edge. The moat didn't look dangerous; there were no crashing waves or sucking whirlpools, only the quiet drip, drip of water leaking from the gargoyle's broken mouth. I had a sudden, strange feeling that Dad would know if I disobeyed him, that the peculiar creature could spring to life and whisper secrets to him. I turned away from the moat, picking my way instead over to the cart shed, where the remnants of roof tiles littered the ground.
I came to a stop at the rain barrel that stood under the guttering. Moldy snails floated in the water, covered in a film of green slime and exuding a smell like rotten cucumbers. I held the nail polish above the water, poised to drop it, mesmerized by the smooth khaki surface. But then a particularly bulbous snail floated past, putrid and engorged with slime, and I changed my mind and dropped down on my knees to look underneath instead.
Here, the grass had grown strong and lush from the constant fetid drip of water, and I crouched down and placed the little bottle there, braiding the blades over it to hide it completely. I sat back on my haunches and studied the effect.
"What are you doing?"
At first I couldn't locate the voice. For a moment I thought it might be the buddleia tree that covered half the cart shed, its branches gesticulating gently in the breeze. I stood up.
"What were you doing?" The voice was more insistent now. It was definitely coming from the buddleia. I looked carefully between the branches. A mop of tawny hair and two eyes were peeping over the wall behind the tree. I flushed.
"Didn't look like nothing."
"It was nothing to do with you."
"Didn't say it was. It looked like fun, that's all." The eyes and hair disappeared. I waited for them to reappear, but they didn't. Worried I'd upset this newfound being, I ran to the gate to get a better look.
"Hello?" I asked desperately, peering through the wooden slats. The mop of hair appeared, this time attached to a muddy T-shirt and shorts, and two stumpy legs.
"You look like an animal at the zoo," it said. "Can I feed you?"
"You don't know what I eat."
The stranger put a hand in a pocket and pulled out a worm.
It dangled there, trying to turn up toward the sky. "These?"
I backed away. The stranger grinned, throwing the worm on the ground.
"Want to play?"
My stomach contracted. I took in the muddy clothes and a nasty-looking graze to the cheek.
"Yeah," I whispered in awe.