"Do you think you should come with us after all?" Belinda's father had asked, running his hands through his dark hair so it stood on end.
He lounged by the toaster wearing his gray suit. Her mother had her hair pinned up neatly, and wore an unfamiliar new dress. Two bulging cases squatted by the door. There was going to be a travelling exhibition of Belinda's mother's paintings. As he was still off work, he was going with her.
Belinda shook her head and smiled. She would miss her parents, but it was only for six weeks after all and school was important. Not only was it her first day back after the holidays, but her grandmother was going to look after her.
"Don't be silly, and watch the toast," she ordered.
Her father swung around. Black curls of smoke drifted up from the toaster. "How did that happen?" he grumbled, as he pulled out charred toast.
Belinda gave her mother and father a last hug and left for school. The smell of burnt toast and frying bacon followed her out like a lingering farewell.
It was exciting to be back at school. Everyone was telling everyone else what they had done over the holidays. The shrill voice of Kate Kennedy rang out over the noise as she umpired a brisk game of netball.
Belinda called greetings as she pushed past. Julie Wilson sat alone on the bench staring at her feet. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her face blotchy. Her dark hair was tangled and uncombed, her shoes muddy, and the collar of her blouse was grubby and creased.
"Did you enjoy your holidays, and have you seen Amanda?"
"No," Julie snapped, picked up her bag, and ran off.
"What's wrong with her?" Belinda asked Amanda when she arrived.
"I think her grandmother gave her a hard time over the holidays."
"Yes, but..." floundered Belinda.
She had always envied Julie for her luck in having a live-in grandmother. She couldn't imagine a grandmother giving anyone a hard time.
"We'll ask her what's wrong," Kate said as she came running up. "'It always helps to talk about things."
Like many of Kate's bright ideas, it was easier to suggest than do. Julie spent the day dodging them. She even shifted from her usual seat in class.
Belinda and Kate passed notes along. Julie screwed them up and flipped them into the wastepaper basket. What was worse, she didn't bother to work at all.
The new teacher got annoyed and gave her a detention. Their regular teacher got cross and also gave her a detention. She was kept in lunchtime and after school. Her three friends waited until she was let out, but she ran past without a word, her eyes fixed into the distance.
"Something's seriously wrong," Kate decided.
"Like what?" Belinda asked.
"Didn't you say your grandmother was arriving?" Amanda asked. "She can ask old Mrs. Wilson."
"Good thinking," agreed Kate. "See you later, slow coaches."
She ran off, bumping her racquet and school bag behind her. Amanda and Belinda walked more slowly along the winding, tree-lined street, and past the old Higgins' place.
"Does Miss Higgins know your grandmother is back?" Amanda asked.
"No," Belinda said. "Let's tell her."
The rusty iron gates were locked, but Belinda and Amanda squeezed through the hole in the stone fence hidden behind over-hanging tree branches. Despite the sun, the over-grown front yard was gloomy.
They pushed their way along the narrow winding path, skirted past the fishpond with its mossy, green mermaid and hammered the ugly gargoyle that was the door knocker. The echoes boomed, but there was no answered shuffle of footsteps.
"She might be around the back," Amanda said.
They squeezed past the shrubbery along the sides of the house, their feet squelching on the carpet of wet leaves and dead branches.
Miss Annie Higgins, a tall old lady in an old fashioned black dress, stood with her back to them. She leaned on a shovel and stared at the long grass. A few potato plants struggled to survive among the weeds, and four small potatoes sat on the upturned clod of dirt by the shovel.
"Miss Higgins," Belinda called.
The old lady turned around. Her eyes were red and her mouth kept puckering. Her face looked sad.
"Belinda and Amanda, how nice to see you," she said.
"We thought you would like to know that grandmother has come to stay again," Belinda said.
"That's lovely." Miss Higgins stared back down at her feet.
"Can we do anything for you?" Amanda asked.
"I don't think so, dears," was the reply. "I'm just getting my dinner."
"What are you having?" asked Amanda, who was always interested in what people cooked and how.
"Some nice boiled potatoes and a nice fresh egg."
It sounded like a funny sort of dinner. Belinda opened her mouth to say something.
"We'll have to go, or Belinda's grandmother will be wondering why she's late," Amanda said quickly.
"Tell Matilda to come and see me," Miss Higgins called as they ran off.
"What was all that about?" Belinda demanded, when they had wriggled through the hole in the stone fence.
"She must be pretty hard up to eat those horrid little potatoes. Did you notice she had been crying?"
"She must have enough money to buy food," Belinda protested. "She lives in that big house."
"Dinner of half grown potatoes and a new laid egg doesn't sound like enough money to buy food to me," Amanda said darkly.
It was very puzzling! Belinda remembered that her grandmother was home waiting for her and cheered up. Her grandmother would know what was wrong with old Miss Higgins, and what to do about Julie Wilson's odd behaviour.
"Race you home," Belinda suggested.
They started running towards Belinda's place, and Belinda's favourite grandmother, Matilda.