HAPPY 82ND, PEG!
Still catching her breath, Peggy glances up at the clock and smiles.
"Eighty-two years, two hours and twenty-nine minutes old." She eases herself into the little sky blue chair at the wooden table in front of her cake. After blowing out the candles and cutting herself an extremely large slice, Peggy slowly, methodically begins to devour the first tier and very soon, icing is smeared around her mouth and all over her fingers.
"Delicious." She grins, displaying a mouthful of cake. "Even better than my eighty-first. I must say, you outdo yourself every year." Peggy looks up and the ceiling lights flicker in appreciation of the compliment.
Peggy's kitchen is smaller and prettier than the one downstairs. The furniture is made of beech and painted white, excepting the blue chair. Vases, pots and jam jars sit on every surface, filled with flowers that alter according to Peggy's moods but never wilt or die. The cupboards have glass doors to display a collection of crockery: bone china cups covered with tarot cards that read the future of whoever drinks from them, teapots and plates painted with characters from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Don Giovanni, The Frog Prince, "The Lady of Shalott" and The Flower Queen's Daughter. The characters shift around at night, indulging in various games and love affairs. They are Peggy's own celebrity magazines and, when she shuffles in for her first cup of tea every morning, she's always curious to see who's fallen in love and who's split up overnight. Now, on the teapot, Rumpelstiltskin is slipping off Guinevere's blouse while, on her plate and almost hidden by the remains of a third slice of cake, the Mad Hatter is kissing an Ugly Sister. The Star--the tarot card that always appears on her birthday--shines from her teacup.
Peggy celebrates her birthday twice. First, just after midnight, always alone. Then in the morning, with whoever is residing in the house. Peggy never knows how many guests she'll have, sometimes as many as twelve and sometimes, very rarely, only one. Today, with the arrival of Alba, she'll have just three: a rare island of calm and tranquillity in a sea of usual confusion and chaos. And for once, these particular women won't need much babysitting. Years ago she would have been insulted, now she's simply relieved. Though, sadly, Peggy knows the relative peace won't last. She can already sense several women whose hope is almost extinguished, who'll be turning up on her doorstep before too long.
The house always joins in the birthday festivities, creaking its beams and rattling its pipes because it's celebrating too. The house was completed, its last brick laid, on the first of May 1811, and every Abbot woman who has inherited the house since has been born on its anniversary. The house was a gift from the prince regent to his lover Grace Abbot. And when the prince moved on to his next mistress, Grace opened the house to women who needed it. Slowly they came, drawn by their own sixth sense, stayed for their ninetynine nights, and, with a few tragic exceptions, left with their spirits high and their hearts healed.
Peggy sips her tea. The tarot card on her cup has changed. Death looks up at her now: the card of beginnings and endings, sudden shifts and dramatic transformations. She puts down her cup. And on the table is a note:
Congratulations on your 82nd and final birthday. You have been a beautiful landlady. One of the very best. We thank you for your service. Now it is time to find your successor. Then you will be free from this life and can move on to the next.
Peggy has to read the note nearly a dozen times before she can believe it. She knew she couldn't live forever, but the shock has still left her a little shaken. If she were another sort of woman she might be scared, she might cry and wish for more time. She might look back on her life and be filled with regrets. But Peggy won't. She is made of stronger stuff. She's also in the rather unique position of being very well acquainted with a great many departed souls and knows that death is nothing to be scared of. It's a mere adjustment in living conditions. In fact, if it wasn't for Harry, she wouldn't mind at all.
Excerpted from The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag. Copyright © 2013 by Menna van Praag. Excerpted by permission of Pamela Dorman Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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