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Spilling the Magic
Chapter One: The Stringers
Want to know a secret, a big’un? Well, do you? I was never much good at keeping secrets. Not whoppers like this.
What can I possibly know worth telling, I can almost see you thinking? Well, I know . . . I know that pigs can fly. I know that real dragons are vegetarians. I know that lots of things aren’t what they seem to be, and that proper magic works. And, I know that you can help save a whole world from being snuffed out to nothing, without even knowing that you’re doing it.
Yeah, go on – laugh. Daft fairytale stuff. Well, do you know something? I couldn’t care less whether you believe me or not. And if you’re still interested you’re just going to have to get on with it. Start right at the beginning. The summer before last, the day I was sent with my sister, Mary to stay with The Stringers.
You see, if we hadn’t been sent to stay with the Stringers, there would have been nothing to tell . . .
* * *
It was a stinking hot morning. The kind that sends buckets of sweat dribbling down the inside of your shirt. And the air was too thick to breathe. I had to chop it up into little bits and suck it between my teeth just to swallow it. Well, nearly.
The rotten bus had dropped us off at the bottom of Lemington Hill. We – Mary and me – we wanted to be at the top of the hill. Some holiday this was going to be.
‘I still don’t see why they couldn’t have taken us with them,’ Mary said. She was sulking. She had been sulking ever since leaving home. I swear, if I hadn’t picked up my suitcase and walked away, I would have thumped her.
‘I don’t want to hear it again, Mary,’ I said, and attacked the hill with giant steps. Row after row of tiny red-brick houses and grubby little corner shops crammed the hillside. I thought somebody had accidentally dropped them there and just not bothered to pick them up again. Windows and doors were slung open all over the place – it was so hot even the buildings were panting for breath.
Dad had said their holiday was a sort of second honeymoon – for Mam. ‘You know Billy, after her bother and the hospital and that.’ He had given me one of his knowing looks that was meant to explain everything, but didn’t. ‘The Stringers are canny enough. And you won’t mind not going with us just this once – will you?’ Another knowing look, and a touch of his nose with a finger. I ignored his fib about the Stringers, pretended to understand, shook my head and touched my nose. Grown-up stuff.
And that’s why, while Mam and Dad were stripped down to the whatsits sunburning themselves on a Jetsun Super Summer Saver, we were trudging up that rotten concrete hill. It wouldn’t have bothered me if the sun had never shone again.
‘And why did it have to be the Stringers, Billy?’ Mary said. ‘Our Aunt Joyce, and Smelly Lilly.’
I shrugged my shoulders, kept walking.
Aunt Joyce had wanted to meet us off the bus. But we’re not little kids. We’d be getting enough of her once we were there without prolonging the agony. Seven days of solid boredom. Keeping clean, being tidy, and eating food just because it’s good for you. One hundred and sixty-eight hours of do’s and don’ts. Or rather don’ts and don’ts. Aunt Joyce had rules. Lots of rules. And they all began with don’t. Don’t put that there, don’t make those noises, don’t come in here with those feet. Don’t even breathe, and if you die in the attempt don’t do it on my best carpet. There was a rumour she had been married once. The bloke had done a bunk. I could believe that.
And if you think our Aunt Joyce sounds bad, our Aunt Lilly is worse. But hang on, I’m saving her up for later.
‘Billy, if you don’t wait for me I’m telling on you,’ Mary said. How many times had I heard that one?
Mary trailed after me. She had Mog’s cardboard box stuck under one arm, and she was dragging her suitcase behind her like it had an infectious disease. Well, it had been her idea to bring the cat – she could carry it. I should have slowed down a bit and let her catch up. I didn’t.
‘Oh, come on, Mary!’ I shouted. ‘We’re nearly there. Past the Union Hall,’ Dad said. ‘Third street on the left. Number twenty-eight Orchard Views. It’s a cinch!’ I just hadn’t reckoned on third street on the left being so close to the top of the hill. My fingers stopped working, and the skin on my hands turned a nasty sort of purpley-green colour where my suitcase’s plastic handle had dug permanent grooves. Stung like anything.
‘Billy Tibbet, YOU JUST WAIT FOR ME!’ Mary was fit to burst. ‘BILLY TIB . . .’ She suddenly stopped, swallowed the rest of her sentence without chewing. We had turned the corner into Orchard Views. Just ahead of us, a tall skinny woman was in her front garden. She was standing among a thin patch of flowers that looked as if it had been laid out with a ruler and a set square. She was waiting for us. Mary forgot to shout. I forgot the sting in my hands. Forgot everything. The world had shrunk, and all that was left was that tall skinny woman. Mzzzz Joyce Stringer . . . our Aunt Joyce.
‘William, Mary . . . Yoo hoo.’ Her voice sliced the air like a rusty knife. Huh, this was it then. I took a long deep breath – my last taste of freedom – and pushed Mary forward. ‘Come along, children . . . wipe your feet, shoes off, slippers on, suitcases straight upstairs . . . Have yourselves a nice wash. And don’t leave that there, dear.’
Mog was tipped out of her box and into the back yard like a bag of old scraps. ‘For the duration,’ Aunt Joyce said. Then she added, ‘Oh, and when you’re done, pop into the dining room and say hello to your Aunt Lilly.’
* * *
‘Hello, Aunt Lilly,’ I said.
‘Hello, Aunt Lilly,’ Mary said.
We just stood, still as we could, and looked. We never moved much when we visited the Stringers. The whole house was . . . well, it was clean and sort of untouchable. It felt as if no matter where you were, or what you were doing, you were messing things up.
The effect wasn’t helped by the stink. THORNTON AND TURNBULL’S UNIVERSAL SPIRIT. A single squirt gets rid of ALL the dirt. Its stench was everywhere. Reminded me of the dissected rats in the biology lab at school. Aunt Joyce swore by it.
The Stringers’ dining room was no different to the rest of the house. It was neat and tidy, with matching sets of everything laid out on the table, ready for dinner.
‘Is she awake, Billy?’ Mary asked. ‘Say something else to her.’
‘I can’t think of anything else,’ I said.
Smelly Lilly was sitting at the far end of the room. Aunt Lilly. If she really was our aunt. I always thought Mam and Dad got a bit lost when it came to our Aunt Lilly. Something twice removed from a cousin’s uncle on your Mam’s side, Dad had said. Mam said she wasn’t. Lived abroad for years, married that lad of your Walter’s, Dad had said. Mam said she hadn’t. Anyway, Aunt Lilly’s a hundred and fifty years old at least, I reckon. Dead bodies have got more life in them. Her face was all buckled up and crumpled. Only her hands ever moved, and they never stopped, endlessly picking and fiddling like they were feeling for something she had lost. And there was a thick mouldy sort of smell hanging around her, a smell that even Universal Spirit couldn’t budge. She never spoke. She just sat there, stuck to her grotty old armchair. Right in the corner where the sun never gets, her black, hollowed-out eyes staring at nothing. Gave us the willies.
‘Coming through, coming through!’ Aunt Joyce’s voice suddenly burst into the room on its own. The rest of her was only halfway out of the kitchen, weighed down by a big panful of something very heavy. ‘Now, we are all going to try my special Grain Pulse and Soya Bean Pot, aren’t we?’
Chapter Two: Cuckoo Clocks and Picked Up Socks
I suppose you can get used to anything. Even Aunt Lilly, if you just ignore her. We got through dinner all right. And tea. And supper. Aunt Joyce even let us watch telly for half an hour, before sending us to bed.
Only now, I couldn’t sleep. It was three o’clock. Exactly three o’clock. The absolute dead of the night. How did I know? A cuckoo clock in the Stringers’ front room called out the time every hour, every half hour and every quarter hour. Its weak wooden cu-coo came up the stairs, through the walls of my bedroom, and dripped, plop, right into my ears. And on top of that, the house never stopped creaking – old floorboards and that. It sounded like somebody was forever creeping about on the landing, listening at your door. Well, I’d decided, tomorrow that cuckoo was going to die a painful death.
I wondered if Mary was still awake. But I didn’t go to look. That was another don’t. Don’t leave your room in the middle of the night. ‘Your Aunt Lilly wouldn’t like it,’ Aunt Joyce had said. Daft. What about the bog? I couldn’t see our Mary holding out all night without the bog.
Cu-coo, cu-coo. Quarter past three.
The sheets on my bed were starched rigid and rubbed like cardboard. And somehow the clothes I’d taken off had been picked up off the floor, neatly folded, and put away in drawers.
I worked my way out of the sheets, sat up on the bed, and pulled open the window. The moon was shining. It needn’t have bothered. Orchard Views at night was the same as Orchard Views by day, only the muddy red-bricks had turned to muddy grey-bricks. And as for the orchard view? Huh! There was no orchard. There wasn’t even a tree. Not one! And there was no view. Just two rows of terraced houses staring at each other across the street. All exactly the same too. All that is, except for one . . . the house opposite. Odd that. In the dark that house was darker than all the rest. And it was the only one with a garden wall. A wall so high you couldn’t see in at the downstairs windows. Not that I wanted to. Nobody had lived there for years.
At teatime Aunt Joyce had told us about their neighbours, and how we weren’t to go playing round their doors giving them trouble. This side of the street was the even numbers, that side the odds. Directly opposite was number twenty-seven. The house had belonged to a strange old woman called Jenny Haniver. Until that is, one day, she just wasn’t there any more. Aunt Joyce had been a bit vague on that point. The old woman had probably died, like old people do, and the house had been empty ever since. ‘That house is a blight on the whole street,’ she had said. ‘It’s a disgrace, a carbuncle, a festering rat trap.’ She had grabbed a bottle of Thornton and Turnbull’s Universal Spirit, and fingered I like a lethal weapon.
Cu-coo, cu-coo. Half past three.
I sat at that open window for a very long time. Nothing happened. Nothing was ever going to happen. Not at the Stringers’.
Much later . . . still nothing happened.
But then . . . something did.
Somewhere a hinge chattered, squeaked for just an instant. A gate, no one was meant to hear, inched open in the darkness. I sat bolt upright, suddenly alert. It was a daft idea, but I was sure the sound had come from the direction of the empty house.
Something was moving. Something or somebody. Feeling its way very, very slowly, following the heavy black shadow of the garden wall. I couldn’t see it, but it was there all right.
Halfway up the street a black-and-white cat strolled out into the light of a street lamp. Huh, it was only our mog. Then, in the next blink, she was gone. Not moved. Disappeared. Not strolled away. Vanished. One moment she was there, the next she wasn’t. I shuddered, head to toe, like I’d been stoked by an icy black finger. Then the light of the street lamp went out.
I felt myself swaying. I threw my head back and gulped down a breath of the cold night air. As I did, I found myself staring, way up into the sky – at least the moon was still in the place I expected it to be.
And then it wasn’t. Just a dirty great big gaping black hole.
I must have flaked out. I don’t remember any more . . .
Chapter Three: Jenny Haniver
‘Oh yes! And I suppose the cow jumped over it . . . and then the dish ran away with the spoon.’ Mary laughed, banging her mug against her cereal bowl and waving them about under my nose like a little baby.
‘Don’t play with the breakfast dishes, dear. You’ll only upset your Aunt Lilly.’ Aunt Joyce’s voice worked itself between the kitchen and the dining room on wires.
Mary hadn’t believed a word I’d said. And worse, she was playing silly beggars. I wanted to stick her head down the bog and flush it.
‘All right then,’ I said. ‘If I’m making it all up where’s our Mog?’
‘Oh, she’s always getting lost.’ Mary was laughing again. ‘Or maybe she’s hiding under the table with the moon. Or behind Aunt Lilly’s chair . . . no, there’s no moon down there.’
I wasn’t going to play her silly game. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have bothered telling a stupid girl,’ I said, scowl turning to daggers. She threw the daggers right back.
I had decided to keep it to myself, forget all about it. In the daylight there was nothing special about number twenty-seven. Its high garden wall put the empty house in shadow even in the blazing sunshine. The whole house was in such a rotten state, it was probably going to drop to bits at any second. And the hinges of the garden gate were thick with rust. But so what? It had been abandoned for years. That was how it should look. And as for disappearing moons and Mog and stuff? Well, that was just daft.
The trouble was, those icy black fingers had rested on my shoulder and they wouldn’t let go.
So, I had told Mary everything.
Aunt Joyce launched herself into the room carrying a whopping-great sack of homemade muesli. It looked like dried-up rabbit droppings, tasted like cardboard. I ate it anyway. Funny really, yesterday the Stringers had been number one on my list of worsts. Ahead of the hole in the ozone layer, the daft presenters on children’s telly and Dad’s sweaty socks. But now, after last night, they were… normal. Aunt Joyce in her blue cotton overall and bright red rubber gloves. And Aunt Lilly, all fingers, picking a fiddling, stuck in her old armchair. Just the daft Stringers, with their Thornton and Turnbull’s Universal Spirit, and their book of rules.
Mary was going to believe me. She was. Whether she wanted to or not . . .
* * *
‘I can’t see anything,’ Mary said. ‘And you’re breaking my arm.’
‘You’re just not looking.’ I twisted her arm up her back until the tears came, and frog-marched her out of the Stringers’ front garden and up the street. How else was I going to get Mary to listen to me?
‘There,’ I said, pointing to the hole in the pavement where the lamppost had stood.
‘There, what? There’s nothing there,’ she said. ‘Just a stupid hole.’
‘Exactly – a hole.’ Voices were getting louder.
‘I think there’s a hole in your head. Now let me go or I’m telling.’
‘Look, Mary! It’s the hole left when the lamppost disappeared – just after Mog.’ I stopped. Cold as stone. Was it just me? All in my head? Loony-bin Billy? No! Mary had to believe me. She had to.
‘Right – I’ll prove it,’ I said. The fact that I couldn’t wasn’t going to stop me.
‘You’re a pig, Billy,’ Mary squealed. She swung back her leg and kicked in with her heel.
‘Ow!’ That stopped me. Suddenly we were a mass of flailing arms and legs. All nips and kicks, tugs and pushes. We keeled over, crashed straight through the rust-stained wooden gate. As we fell the gate swung shut, and the sun was gone. Quicker than clicking an on switch to off.
We were behind the garden wall of number twenty-seven.
‘Mary – you OK?’ I was whispering now.
‘Cut my leg.’
I seemed to have landed on the lid of an iron dustbin. I could taste the sourness of its rusted metal. Slowly the solid blackness turned into lumps of dirty, colourless grey. The garden was made up of bits of old rubbish and broken concrete. Then the face of the house loomed up, as friendly as a gravestone. One of the large downstairs windows was broken, the rest were just dull, lifeless, thick with years of dirt. There were only the ghosts of rooms behind them now.
Mary was leaning against the wall of the house, holding her leg with one hand while trying to poke her nose in at the broken window. If there was one thing she liked better than an argument, it was a neb-about in somebody else’s business.
‘Ouch,’ she yelped, jumping backwards. ‘That flippin’ prickly stuff stuck right into me.’ The skeleton of a climbing rose still clung to the brick work. It was a long time dead.
‘SSSHHHHHH,’ I said. ‘Don’t make so much noise. Someone’ll hear us.’
‘Shush yourself. There’s been nobody in here for yonks . . . Give me a bunk up to this window, Billy. I can’t see a thing from down here.’
I never got the chance. There was a shout . . . and another . . . and then another. We froze, rooted where we stood. But the shouting wasn’t aimed at us. It was muffled, distant, inside the house. Inside the empty house.
‘You . . . you don’t think it’s her, do you, Billy? Mary whispered, hardly finding her voice. ‘That Jenny Haniver, come back?’ I didn’t answer.
Up on tiptoes I peered in through the broken window. The room was bare. That didn’t surprise me. Bare, not empty.
‘Open up. Blast you – OPEN UP.’ The voice roared, and behind it breath rasped and crackled like dry sticks. Someone was standing there, back turned towards us, almost hidden in the gloom. It might have been a woman, but not much of a one. More a bundle, a rag-bag of bits, a sort of walking jumble sale.
‘I’m warning you . . .’ The breath sucked and blew dangerously. ‘How many lifetimes have I lurked among the darkest shadows of this putrid world? How many, made do with petty mischief? Bored myself with silly pranks and simple trickery. Played a devil’s peek-a-boo! What fun is there in that?’ The crackle of breath became a bubbling, snotty-nosed sniff. ‘Aaah! But then you crept into this world. Slipped quietly in, and thought it safe to lose yourself in hiding. Well . . . you could not hide from me. Could you? I searched you out. I found you. And now, now there are new games for me to play. So – FLAMIN’-WELL-OPEN!’
‘What’s she going on about, Billy?’ Mary hissed at me through clenched teeth. ‘Sounds like a right divvy. And who’s she yelling at?’
‘How on earth should I know?’ I hissed back. ‘I can’t see anybody. If you’d just shut up for a minute though, and listen, we might find out.’
Jenny Haniver – if it really was Jenny Haniver – began to stomp noisily up and down. She became a mad woman and bounced across the room: jumping, kicking, twirling, spinning. Her hands yanking at something clasped between them. Whipped-up dust rolled and crashed through the air in miniature thunderstorms. She went on and on, banging, crashing about. Screeching at the top of her voice. Until, finally, her breath became so desperate she was forced to slither to a stop. Whatever it was all about – it hadn’t worked.
She was close to the window now. I could see what was in her hands. A book. A small, leather-bound book.
‘Please, just another little word… or a tiny little picture… I promise to be good this time,’ she said, very, very softly, as if she was coaxing a baby out of its chocolate. Didn’t make much sense to me. Her hands tugged. The book didn’t open. Her hands tugged again. The book didn’t… no, the book wouldn’t open. Not your everyday ordinary sort of a book.
Then she was screeching again. ‘Do as I command you! I stole you from a fool! A fool who does not know what you are. But I do. I DO. And you WILL open.’
The book stayed firmly shut.
‘Bah!’ The word was poison. ‘Useless, stubborn—’ She flung the book into the air and for a split second it seemed to hang there, nailed to the spot. Pierced by the stare of a single blood-red eye – just a slit in her crooked face. Those icy black fingers ran up and down my back again. That look might have been murder. The split second lasted forever.
What happened next is still a bit of a blur. I reckon something told me to do it. Something I still don’t really understand. I reached in through the broken window and snatched the book out of the air.
‘Run for it, Mary,’ I shrieked. We ran all right. Ran, neck and neck, feet thumping concrete. Something close behind us. Ran, crashing heavily through the gate. The sting of sunlight. The crackle of that voice. The one word spoken. Then Mary gone. Not a hair, not a button, not the cut on her leg. Just gone.
Then standing in the front room with the Stringers without knowing how I got there. Blurting out the whole miserable tale. Aunt Lilly’s empty black eyes stared right through me. But a smile spread across Aunt Joyce’s face like dry bread curling at the edges. A dishonest grown-up smile – pretending to believe.
‘But it’s true, I tell you,’ I tried to pull the book out of my pocket. Sure proof. I got no further. Aunt Joyce suddenly towered over me. The smile was gone. Her face was a very dangerous-looking shade of purple.
‘Billy – are those outdoor shoes?’ The news that her niece had disappeared into thin air, and was lost and gone forever, had passed through her like water down a drainpipe. What she could see with her own eyes – clumps of muck on her best carpet – had not.
And then her face was at the window. Jenny Haniver.
Somehow, I reached the back door, was across the yard, and out into the back lane. I charged down the street. Crossed roads I knew, and then roads I didn’t. Feet pounding. Head pounding. Things flashing in front of me as if they were real . . . Aunt Joyce’s dry bread smile . . . that staring red eye . . . the crack of dry sticks . . . and Mary.
‘MARY,’ I yelled.
My head was so full up I thought it would burst. Red hot tears scalded my cheeks as they ran down my face. What the heck was I going to do now? My legs were running, it seemed so simple just to let them keep on going . . .
The e-book edition of Spilling the Magic, published by Crossroad Press, is available from all good e-book stores including:
Fiddlesticks and Firestones
Chapter One: Knock, Knock, Who’s There?
Sometimes I hate grown-ups. They just, sort of, get in the way of everything. It wasn’t my fault our mam came clomping down the stairs, just when I was right in the middle of the very first spell I’d ever done. I’m just a learner, you see, at spell-making, that is. The proper, magic stuff. It wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t mean to do it to her. Didn’t mean to turn her into, into . . . well, I still don’t know exactly what it was. I stuck her in an empty jam-jar with a piece of lettuce, and poked holes in the lid so that she could breathe.
Hang on though, I’m getting ahead of myself – real adventures don’t start in the exciting places. Real adventures start on dead boring, drizzly dull Thursday mornings. Or at least, this one did. It was at that funny time halfway through the summer holidays, when nothing ever happens, when nothing is the tiniest bit interesting, and you could almost wish to be back at school. I was stuck in the living room with our Mary, waiting for drippy Wendy Milligan – Fiddlesticks Milligan – to bang on the front door . . .
* * *
‘And you’ll play nicely with her, the pair of you,’ Mam’s voice threatened, on her way up the stairs. ‘Can you two hear me in there? Are you listening?’
‘Ye-es, Mam,’ Mary huffed.
‘Billy? Billy Tibbet? You’re the eldest. Don’t go skulking off the minute she gets here. Leaving it all to Mary.’
‘I mean no-o, Mam.’
‘And you’ve tidied up that room, like I told you?’
‘Ye-es, Mam.’ Huh. We hadn’t. I liked our house the way it was, with a comfortable layer of dust over everything. Not really dirty, just enough to make you feel at home. And anyway, the living room was where we kept all our interesting stuff. You know, like my bottle tops and Mary’s rag dolls. The junk our dad rescues from car-boot sales and Mam’s knitting patterns cut out of hundred-year-old magazines, with pictures of women on the back advertising knickers the size of our garden. Oh, all that kind of stuff. I didn’t see why it should all be cleared up just because we were having a rotten visitor.
‘I told Mrs Milligan mind, said you’d both be really pleased to help out.’ Mam had reached the bathroom. ‘Having somebody to play with will help young Wendy take her mind off things. Now that her dad’s . . . now that her dad’s . . .’ Her voice got stuck there, and she started clattering shampoo bottles about in the bathroom cabinet, like it was all some big, grown-up secret. Well, it wasn’t.
‘Now that her dad’s done a bunk,’ I said, ‘with that Kathleen Ferguson’s mam, from Raby Street.’
‘I suppose we wouldn’t like it, Billy,’ Mary said, ‘if our dad did something like that.’
‘Huh. Our dad’s got more sense, hasn’t he? Flippin’ Fiddlesticks Milligan, coming here. Nobody likes her. Nobody in the whole wide world.’
I suppose I should tell you why. Well, for a start she’s as thin as a spelk, with tiny little weaselly eyes, and a sort of whimpering, wet-watery voice. Everything she says sounds like a complaint. And she stands funny, with her legs mixed up, always twiddling with her hair and pulling at the bottom of her dress, like she’s bursting for the bog. That’s why she’s nicknamed Fiddlesticks. Then, there’s her allergies, and her diseases – if she’s not scratching something, she’s catching something. There’s always something wrong with her. And if you still need convincing, I’ll tell you something else. She’s useless, absolutely useless, at everything. Couldn’t get herself picked for the school sports if she was the only one to turn up! Huh, I could go on for ever about Fiddlesticks Milligan. But I won’t, because that’s when the banging on the front door started.
‘I’m not answering it,’ Mary said, shaking her head, stuffing it deeper into the book she was pretending to read.
‘Well, I’m not answering it either,’ I said.
The banging came again.
‘Mary! Billy! Will one of you two p-lease answer that door. Before I have to come down there and knock your heads together,’ Mam whispered down the stairs, at the top of her voice, if you know what I mean. She was really good at doing that.
The banging on the door was getting frantic.
I glared daggers at Mary. ‘Mam said your name first.’ Firsts was a sort of unwritten rule. Mary tried glaring back, but she knew she’d lost.
I heard the front door open. I heard Mary’s muffled hello, and the weak, wet-watery reply. Fiddlesticks Milligan all right. I was out of the living room, and into the cupboard under the stairs before she was over the front step. I stuck my ear to the cupboard door, and listened.
‘I hope there’s no cats in here,’ Fiddlesticks whined. ‘I can’t have cats in the house. Their fur makes me itch. I come out in huge red blotches and my skin flakes off.’
‘No, there’s no cats,’ Mary said, wearily. ‘Our Mog’s been shut up in the garden shed.’ The sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices disappeared into the living room.
I relaxed a bit, leant backwards in the dusty grey darkness, perched myself between the vacuum cleaner and the row of winter coats that smelled reassuringly of Mam and Dad. Waited for a chance to make a proper escape.
The banging on the front door started up again! But even louder and harder than before, and in a desperate hurry. And whoever it was this time, they weren’t using the knocker. They were banging on the woodwork. Our mam would go wild if they were making marks.
I didn’t wait for Mam to start screaming blue murder. I stormed out of the cupboard and across the hall, and yanked the door open. I’d catch the silly beggars.
There was nobody there.
I was ready to boil over, to thump somebody. Huh, there wasn’t a single person in the whole of our street.
Outside a sharp wind was playing about with the drizzle, and the front path was shining, streaked with tiny, blue-green rainbows. Where Fiddlesticks had walked there were squelchy, rubbery smudges. But there were no other footprints. Nobody else had been up our path in yonks. It didn’t make any sense, so I gave up and shut the door again. Or at least, I nearly did. As I swung it to, I noticed something sitting on the doorstep – a small brown paper parcel, tied up with string. The parcel was an odd shape, round and flat at the same time, as if somebody had wrapped up a lump of Plasticine.
I bent down, picked it up. There wasn’t a name on it, or an address, a stamp or anything. The wrapping paper felt as thick as cardboard, and was all cracked and crumbly. And the string wasn’t string, it was more like a stiff, dry leather. Dry, even in the rain. Maybe I should have been more careful. But well, if there was nothing on the parcel to say it was for me, there was nothing on the parcel to say that it wasn’t. So I tore it open, snapped the leather string, let the wind carry the wrapping out of my hand and off up the street.
Inside the first wrapper there was a second wrapper, bound tightly around something hard in the middle. There was writing on it: WARNING. DO NOT OPEN THIS PACKAGE WITHOUT READING THESE INSTRUCT— That’s all I read. I was being so pigheaded I just ripped the wrapper off, and let it follow the first one up the street in the wind.
All that was left in my hand was a stone. A blue stone, perfectly smooth and with two small holes running through it. (It was a bit like two big, funny-coloured Polo mints stuck together, but with all the letters sucked off.)
‘Oowww! Ooooo!’ I yelped, or screamed, or something. The stone had suddenly turned red hot. A really daft kind of red hot! And a tingling, fizzy buzziness of pain shot through my fingers, up my arm, around the inside of my head and back again, scalding my tongue on the way, jabbing my teeth like a dentist’s drill.
Then, suddenly, our front door and our garden disappeared, along with the drizzly dull Thursday morning and the whole of the rest of the world. In its place stretched out a darkness so deep and heavy I could almost feel its touch. But it wasn’t an empty darkness – there was a vague outline . . . the even deeper, darker, threatening shape of a mountain . . . a huge great mountain, with someone, something, standing alone at the top. The figure didn’t move, just stood there, still as a statue. Waiting . . .
I must have screamed again.
‘Billy? Billy? What’s the matter?’ Mary came charging up our hall, pushing past me, fists closed ready to thump. And Fiddlesticks was trailing along behind her, sticking her neb in.
‘Did you see it, Mary? Did you see?’ I said.
‘What, Billy? What, where?’
‘There! Right in front of you, stupid. The mountain, and him!’ I could feel myself getting more and more angry. Our Mary was starting to make silly faces – and worse, so was Fiddlesticks Milligan. Faces that said pull the other one, Billy, it’s got bells on.
‘It was there,’ I cried.
Nothing to see now, though. Just the front garden. Just me, standing on the doorstep in the rain, with a small blue stone clutched in my hand. I held it up, wanted Mary to see, wanted her to understand . . .
But that was when our mam came thumping down the stairs, with half her make-up slopped across her face. ‘What on earth are you two doing to this poor lass?’ she said, putting an arm around Fiddlesticks, jumping to wrong conclusions. ‘Can’t I trust you on your own for five minutes!’
‘It’s all right, Mam,’ Mary sniggered. ‘It’s just our Billy, being silly.’
I scowled at her. Scowled at them all. And if, inside my head, I had them all turning into something really really nasty and horrible, then maybe they deserved it. It’s at times like that you’re never really sure how things happen. In my hand the blue stone flickered, and grew warm again. Grew stinging hot. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t!
‘What have you got there, Billy?’ Mam asked, in her best guilty-before-being-proved-innocent voice. ‘Let me see—’
Too late. Too ruddy late.
My very last scowl must have landed on her, because that’s when it happened. That’s when I turned our mam into, into . . .
‘Where – where’s your mam gone, Billy?’ Fiddlesticks squirmed and pulled at the bottom of her dress. ‘And – urgh! – what’s that crawling across the carpet? I think I’m going to be sick.’
‘What have you done, Billy?’ Mary shrieked. ‘What have you done to Mam?’
‘Shut up, Mary. Just shut up,’ I cried. ‘Don’t you dare say anything. Not either of you. Not ever.’
‘Bring her back, then. Quickly.’
I looked at the cold blue stone in my hand. Looked at the Mam-thing. Looked at the stone again. Fiddlesticks wasn’t the only one feeling sick. ‘I – I can’t. I don’t know how.’
I flung the stone across the hall, heard it clack-clack against the far wall as it broke in two. As if throwing it away, smashing it, could somehow put everything right, could make me feel better. Well, it couldn’t.
The Mam-thing was squatting uncomfortably in the middle of the hall carpet, rocking herself gently backwards and forwards. And I knew, just knew that if she’s still been our proper mam, there’d have been clouts around ear-holes.
‘It’s horrible. It’s got sharp teeth, and fur,’ Fiddlesticks whined, in her wet-watery voice, twisting up her face ready to blubber. ‘I want to go home!’
‘She’s not horrible at all,’ I said. I knelt down and carefully stroked the tiny Mam-thing with a finger. ‘See? She’s really quite . . . quite nice. And anyway, you’re not going anywhere.’ I didn’t grab hold of her. Just made a fist. Just looked.
‘You can’t keep me here, Billy Tibbet. That’s kidnap. And I’m getting a rash. I know I am.’ Fiddlesticks started jigging up and down, scratching at her arms and legs. ‘My cousin’s dad’s in the poliss. He’ll send you both to prison. Prob’ly for ever. Prob’ly won’t ever let you out again.’
‘Oh, shut up and stand still, will you. You’re frightening our mam,’ Mary said. ‘Do you think we should find her something to eat? Y’know, Billy, some grass, or some lettuce, or something?’
I shrugged. The Mam-thing stopped rocking. Curled herself up into a blodgy, huffy ball, and wouldn’t come out again.
Chapter Two: The Secret
Putting our mam in a jam-jar – for safe keeping and that – well, that was my idea. But blabbing secrets to Fiddlesticks Milligan, that was our Mary. What secrets? I’d better tell you if you don’t already know. All this weird magic stuff, it’s happened to us before. And you see, we have got a secret. Not a stupid made-up kids’ game, either. But a real secret, that’s just about impossible to believe. Even in a billion years.
I was busy tying a string handle to the Mam-thing’s jam-jar, and Fiddlesticks was busy getting in the way, poking her nose against the glass for a better look, and well . . . Mary just walked into the kitchen and blurted it out. ‘I knew!’ she said, bursting with excitement. ‘I knew! This is all Murn’s doing, isn’t it?’ She had the two pieces of the blue stone cupped carefully in her open hands, and there was a funny look stuck to her face. A look that made her seem older somehow, full of questions, full of answers too. ‘Billy? I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Murn?’ said Fiddlesticks, twiddling with her hair. ‘What’s Murn?’
‘Shut up, Mary,’ I shouted. ‘Not in front of her. That’s secret. That’s our secret.’
‘But, Billy, where did you find it?’
‘It was in a parcel, on the front step, after that banging on the door. But I said, Mary, just shut up. It’s got nothing to do with her.’
‘I don’t want to play your silly games, anyway,’ Fiddlesticks huffed.
‘This is not a game,’ Mary said, her voice suddenly quiet and serious.
‘Well, it’s not a game, is it, Billy? Not if it’s really from Murn. And anyway, she’s already in it. She saw everything.’
In the end, I suppose we had to tell her, couldn’t really not.
‘You’ve got to promise, mind, never, ever, EVER to breathe a word of this to anyone.’ I twisted both of Fiddlestick’s ears until she squeaked.
‘Ow! Oow! No, I won’t. I won’t.’
‘’Cos if you do, if you do—’ I gave her ears another twist.
‘I promise,’ she whined. ‘I promise.’
‘Right then, right. You see, Murn’s a place . . . well, more than that. Murn’s a whole world.’
‘A world! Now just listen, will you.’ I twisted her ears again, just to make sure. ‘Murn’s like . . . like this world where we live, only it’s somewhere else. And it’s different. There’s a moon, instead of a sun. And it’s full of mountains – ninety-seven of them, floating about in space. And, and it’s magic there, with real dragons and pigs that can fly and—’
‘Oh yes. And I suppose there’s witches and wizards too,’ Fiddlesticks sniggered.
‘Well, that just shows what you know doesn’t it, because there are. Except in Murn they’re called Spellbinders.’
‘Spellbinders? Huh! You’ve both been watching too much telly.’
‘Yes, but real Spellbinders,’ I said. ‘Our Aunt Lilly’s one of them.’
‘Oh, ha ha, very funny.’ Fiddlesticks sniggered again. ‘I don’t remember seeing her on the Six O’clock News.’
Huh, I couldn’t explain it any better, even if it did sound daft. And Fiddlesticks Milligan couldn’t stop sniggering. ‘Oh, you try and tell her, sis.’
Mary looked down at the broken stone in her hand. ‘Murn’s a place for adventures,’ she said, her eyes sparkling, like she was on fire inside. ‘Wonderful, wonderful adventures. And it’s real. And we’re not making it up. We’ve been there, haven’t we, Billy?’ I was nodding frantically.
For a moment Fiddlestick’s face was a copy of Mary’s – alight and fiery. Huh, just for a moment, though. ‘You know what?’ she said, suddenly remembering herself. ‘That’s the biggest heap of rubbish I’ve ever heard in my whole life.’
‘It is not rubbish!’ Mary snapped. ‘Where do you think this came from?’ She pushed the broken stone right under Fiddlesticks’ nose. ‘And how else can you explain what’s happened to our mam?’
‘Oh, that thing in the jam-jar’s nothing special. Haven’t you heard of pet shops? ’Spect it’s some kind of ornamental hamster. Just wait till I tell the class at school—’
‘You’re not snitching to anyone!’ Mary warned. She’d had enough of Fiddlesticks Milligan, and there might have been a really nasty fight then. But there wasn’t.
Suddenly, a bright blue spark jumped out of the back of my dad’s radio, turned into a miniature firework display, and exploded across the ceiling. Scared the living daylights out of us. The radio was sitting on the kitchen windowsill, wasn’t even plugged in. Its buttons flicked up, flicked down, then up again, and it crackled and spat, like it was waking up.
And then, the radio spoke to us.
The e-book edition of Fiddlesticks and Firestones, published by Crossroad Press, is available from all good e-book stores including:
Tooth and Claw
Chapter One: Comings and Goings
“Ow!” Mrs Ida Tupps squealed, and leapt into the air. The cat’s claws dug deeper. Pierced the old woman’s thick woollen jumper, her cotton blouse and winter vest. Pricked the loose warm folds of her skin beneath, and there took a tight hold.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” With every “Ow!” Mrs Ida Tupps gave another leap into the air, hopping wildly from one ancient leg to the other. “Why, you horrid cat! – Miss Bryna Tupps – sticking your nasty little pins into me like that.”
Unrepentant, Bryna’s claws dug deeper still.
“Yoooo-oooOW! – I won’t have you in this house a minute longer. I won’t. You can spend your night outside, madam. Let’s see how you like that!” Mrs Ida Tupps took a deep breath, puffed herself up, and holding the young queen off at arms length, blustered her way between the sitting-room and the front door.
Bryna called out in desperation, her yowling almost as sharp a cut as her claws. And her cry said, “This is not fair. I don’t care if I was sitting in your chair. I was there first! I was warm, I was tired. I was belly-full and contented. And I really, really don’t want to be put outside!” She pushed and pulled, scratched and clawed against the arms that held her fast. But Mrs Ida Tupps did not understand. The silly old woman never understood a single word she said.
Bryna heard the front door clack open. Felt the first icy blast of midnight air. Felt herself dropped, unceremoniously, to the ground. The door was snapped shut behind her with a string of muffled words. Then the pale yellow light behind the hall window was switched off.
The cold and the dark of the winter’s night closed in around her. She flicked her tail stubbornly, the fur on her back twitching with annoyance. “I don’t want to be outside!” she cried. “I don’t want to be outside!” Nobody was listening.
Her nose was still full of old, familiar, indoor scents. The stuffy, stale air. The dry and drowsy warmth. And the peculiar, sharply sour, unnatural smell that was Mrs Ida Tupps. For a moment she remembered her food bowl, the whiteness of a saucer of milk, and the luxury of soft comfortable things to sleep on. But then, the wind began to curl around her, blowing away such thoughts, and she lost them.
Reluctantly, Bryna turned her head into the wind. All at once, the town heaped itself upon her, in a mad, confused whirl, flooding her senses; too much for the wit of a lazy, dull-brained house-cat. The brick, the stone, the iron, the glass. The crippling weight of the countless buildings, stacked remorselessly, one against the next in never-ending lines. The prickling sting of street lights. Here, the shrieking of birds in flight. There, the reek of stray cats. From far off, the soft warning smells and the tickling sounds as a river danced. And beyond, the puzzlement of dumb animals standing out upon open fields. And then in one great burst, the roar of the metal road machines – the cars and the buses, the lorries and the motorcycles – with their burning oils and choking gases. All shapes, all sizes, all mad as hell, with staring eyes that scorched the night as they charged endlessly up and down. Forever going, never getting there. And always, first and last, always and always, the heavy scents of men calling to her; this is all mine, mine, mine, mine!
Bryna’s fur bristled; a new, pungent odour stung her nose, soured her tongue, and drove away all else. At last a scent she did understand . . . dog. The stench of a dog, close by. She lifted her nose and sniffed deeply . . . A low purr rose up in her throat; this was a stale scent, yesterday’s smell, and without threat.
Bryna gave herself a quick lick for confidence sake, and tried to soothe herself with thoughts of her own private outside world. Her prowl. Yes, as is the right of all cats, even this poor lap-cat has her prowl. Around and about her was the clutter of houses she took great pride in knowing by their names. There was Shipley Avenue, St Basil’s, Her’s Over The Road, Piggy’s Lonnen and The Corner Shop. Names she had learned as a kit from Mrs Ida Tupps. Of course, exactly which houses matched which name she was less sure of, so she had taken to calling them all The Lonnen. It was a poor prowl then, a short walk between houses and back gardens, trees and rubbish bins, hedges and back lanes. A prowl beyond which she dared not venture. But at least it was all hers and, for the most part, trouble-free.
Satisfied at last for her safety, Bryna stalked carefully around the side of the house and headed for the back garden path.
She did not get very far. She stopped instinctively, halfway down the path. Another scent? A movement? Something odd. The undergrowth beneath the garden hedge crackled and shook. Bryna stood rigid, her eyes wide open in the darkness, body stanced, ready to run.
“Bryna? Bryna, is that you?” A tiny voice squeaked. A small, rusty-orange-and-white shape fell out of the hedge and tumbled to a standstill.
“Oh! It’s only you, Treacle,” Bryna said. In front of her stood a young tom, a kitten still, not a season old. She sat down heavily and turned her head away from him, pretended to ignore him.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Treacle said, coming closer, but not quite daring to touch her. “Tupps put you out again, has she?” Without waiting for an answer, he bounded into the hedge and then out again as if he was in a chase.
“Yes, no, well . . .” Bryna licked her shoulder needlessly. “No. No, of course you didn’t scare me. And of course I wasn’t put out,” she lied. “It was just so uncomfortably stuffy inside.”
Treacle ran a quick circle around her, and deliberately fell over between her paws. “Can I come prowl with you, then?” he begged. She did not answer. Instead she turned her back on him, slipped behind the dustbin and out of the garden through a hole in the wire fence that grew up among the hedge. “Can I?” he called after her, following anyway. “I won’t get in your way. Promise.”
* * *
The dog was lying curled up in his own armchair, the armchair that stood in the corner of the living-room next to the window. He was grumbling to himself. The Mister and The Missus had forgotten him, again.
The Mister and The Missus? That’s what the old man and woman who lived with him called each other. And they called him Dog; when they remembered him at all, that is. His real name was Kim. He remembered that from his first home with the Kellys. Not Dog. You can’t call a dog Dog, can you?
The Mister and The Missus had shut him in the living-room. They had forgotten his dinner, forgotten his walk too. And they were deaf. Stone deaf. He’d barked himself hoarse and still they hadn’t heard him. Eventually, he had given up and taken to sulking in his armchair. You could see a lot from that chair. It stood in front of the window, and the curtains were never closed, day or night. Of course his eyes weren’t up to much these days.
“Time for my walk,” he growled sullenly. “The Kellys never forgot my walk. Not once in twelve years . . . You’ll have gone to your beds, I suppose?” There was no reply.
Kim tried to listen instead, but his ears weren’t any better than his eyes. Nothing seemed to work properly any more. Not at his age. His fur kept falling out in great lumps. He was out of breath at the least run. And as for his legs – oh dear, his legs would hardly keep him upright for five minutes before demanding a rest. “Long enough for a walk, though,” he whined. “And there’s my belly too! It’s empty!” He could feel the wind building up inside him, blowing him up like a human kitten’s toy balloon. He twisted himself around in his armchair and farted. “Oh, I’m much better for that. Much better for that . . .” He shut his eyes, and tried to comfort himself with sleep.
Maybe he did fall asleep, maybe he was asleep and was only dreaming when the noises came. If only the thumping on the front door had not seemed so real; at first like fists hammering, and then like the weight of a whole body thrown against it. Suddenly, there were big bright lights swooping down through the night sky, biting holes out of the darkness. The heavy fwump, fwump, fwump of an engine. And the squeal of hard metal voices yelling commands. There were real voices too, out there in the street. Urgent voices, demanding voices. Kim lifted an ear, tried to listen, tried to understand.
“Hello? HELLO? Is there anyone in there? . . . Who lives at this one, Sarge?”
“Get that woman from next door. See if she knows owt. There’s the whole ruddy street to clear!”
Thumping on the front door again, almost breaking it in.
“Violet, Violet pet, are you there?” A terrified squeak of a voice. “Violet, it’s me . . . Susan. SUSAN CLARKE, FROM NUMBER FORTY-FIVE.” Her knuckles rapped hard against the wooden door.
“Bloody deaf old codgers.” The demanding voice again. A heavy boot thudded against the door.
Kim heard movement out in the hallway. Feet clumping nervously down the stairs. Scared voices whispering. “What time’s it, The Mister?”
“What you say?”
“Must be the middle of the night.”
“What you say?”
“Who’s there? Do you hear me, who’s there?” The Missus called out weakly. “I’m warnin’ you, we’ve got a big dog.”
“What you say?”
“Violet, pet . . . IT’S MRS CLARKE. Can you come to the door?”
The click of the hall light. Door bolts clacking open. More voices in the street. Screams. Tears. Scurrying feet.
“Right. Everyone, quick as you can now. Up you come.” The metal voice rang out from the sky. “No, you can’t bring a great pile of luggage with you! And no, definitely no flamin’ pets. We’re shifting a whole ruddy town here. Not going on a ruddy holiday. Now, move along.”
“What they say?”
“Eee, The Mister. I can’t go climbin’ up there dressed in me nightie. I’ll catch me death.”
“What you say?”
“And where are you takin’ us, son? This is a free country. Or at least, it was. Can’t go draggin’ respectable people out of bed in the middle of the night.”
“Out of here. That’s where we’re taking you, missus,” yelled Sarge.
“Yes, but why? This is our home, and there’s all me belongin’s—”
“I’ll tell you why, missus – because I’ve been bloody well told to! That’s why. Now, come on. You can put in for compensation same as everybody else!”
“What they say?’
“Look – it’s an evacuation, mister. A State of Emergency. Don’t you watch the telly? It was all on the news! Ruddy politicians are at each other’s throats again!”
“Eee, son, you’d think two countries that’s been neighbours as long as us would have run out of things to quarrel about.”
“Aye, well— it’s the border this time: can’t even decide between them where to draw a ruddy line on the ground! So, they’re giving us one each!”
“What you say?”
“A border each, coast to coast! With a ruddy great five-mile gap between them that’s not going to belong to nobody. A sort of no-man’s-land to stop the squabbling once and for all; and this town’s right in the middle of it. You know, mister – NO-MAN’S-LAND. Like in World War One! Same as with the bloody Germans. SAME AS WITH THE BL— Oh, never mind! Just get moving, will you? We’ve got to get out of here.”
“These two the last of them?” called the metal voice. “What? . . . No, I said, no animals. No exceptions.”
The machine roared louder, then louder still, filling the whole house with its fwump, fwump, fwump, until even the walls shook with fear. Then it was gone, its lights disappearing over the rooftops.
Kim suddenly realised – he hadn’t barked once. Not a whimper. Hadn’t even jumped down from his chair to scratch at the door. Well, you don’t, do you, not when it’s a dream? And it was a dream, wasn’t it? He shuffled himself about and, far too warm and comfortable to worry any more about it, lost himself inside a deeper sleep.
* * *
“Do you think it’s safe, Bryna? Do you think it’s safe to go home yet?” Treacle whispered from the hiding place he’d found for himself deep inside the privet hedge.
“I’m, I’m not sure.” Bryna was hiding close by, in the same hedge, her eyes screwed up tight shut. They’d been hiding most of the night. Ever since those awful machines had flown at them out of the night sky. Bryna knew about the metal birds – the aeroplanes. She expected to find them way up in the sky, safely out of reach and harm’s way. But these machines weren’t the same at all. They flew very, very low, stood still upon the air, had huge arching lights that chased you across the ground, growling voices that made terrible threatening noises. And the noises had been contagious. There had been banging on front doors, people spilling out on to the streets, noisy with fear and panic. Then the grumble of the traffic out on the main roads had become suddenly too loud, as if there was far too much of it. In fact, the whole town had become suddenly too loud. That was when Bryna and Treacle had taken to the hedge, and they were still hiding there, long after the town had gone quiet again.
“I’ll, I’ll go and have a look,” Bryna said, pretending to be brave. She opened her eyes slowly and carefully – just in case she saw something she did not want to see – and cautiously poked her head out from behind the leaf cover. It was getting light. The bitter cold and the stark blackness of the night was relenting, and a cloudy sky was being stroked by a cheerless early-morning sun. The hairs on her nose twitched. The air around her was almost still, almost motionless. No one, nothing, was about.
At last, she stepped out into the open and, as her bravery grew with the light of day, she began her prowl home.
“Bryna, are you still there? Can I come out now?” Treacle cried, still too scared to move. But for Bryna, the kit was already long forgotten.
Chapter Two: The Howling
Bryna sat down upon Mrs Ida Tupp’s back doorstep, her ears twitching as she listened for the sounds of familiar morning movements. That unexplainable nonsense beloved of all men. The ritual coughs, the sneezes, the chinking and the clanking, the banging about. The wooden sounds of creaking floorboards as clumsy human feet stomped sleepily from room to room. Clicking things, twisting things. Picking things up, putting things down again.
But not this morning. No, not this morning. The house stood silent. There were no sounds, no movements. And it never once occurred to Bryna, after all the strange adventures of the night, that there would not be.
“I’m hungry! Let me in, I’m hungry —!” She mewed, certain still that Mrs Ida Tupps would answer her cries. Soon the door would be opened up with soft words, with delicious, back-tingling strokes, and a fuss. All Bryna had to do was wait. Just wait.
But it was a very long wait, with no more story to it than the passage of time.
Mrs Ida Tupps did not come and open up the door.
Later, the sun lifted its pale head above the roof line only to disappear behind a curtain of soft grey cloud. Rain spat upon the ground in tiny feathered droplets, thought better of it and dried up again.
Mrs Ida Tupps did not come and open up the door.
At length, it was a sudden plaintive mewing that finally distracted Bryna. She stood up, turned open-eyed and spat her irritation at the approaching intruder; only to find Treacle coming towards her down the garden path.
“Oh Bryna, Bryna, where have all the people gone?” the kit mewed pitifully. “Nobody will answer my calls. There isn’t a man anywhere! Not anywhere! And I think I’m starving to death.” He was shaking uncontrollably, and his paws left damp patches on the pavement behind him.
Bryna flicked her tail, thoughtfully, felt the pain of hunger tighten in her belly. She looked from the house to the kit, and back again, unsure of what to make of it. The windows and doors were shut, the curtains were still closed. That was wrong. She paced around to the front of the house, with Treacle following anxiously, unwilling to let her out of his sight. Out on the pavement the street lamps were still burning in the broad daylight. Surely that was wrong too? And there was something else. Or rather, there wasn’t something else when there should have been.
“Listen, Treacle. Listen,” she said. Where was the constant roaring? The never-ending shriek of car engines? The screams of gears and brakes as they chased each other about the streets in their usual mindless hurry? It was deathly quiet. Even the roads were wrong. Bryna licked her shoulder, confused, annoyed. How had she not noticed until now?
“I’m scared,” Treacle whimpered, huddling himself up into a tiny ball. “Something horrible has happened, I just know it.”
“Let’s see.” Bryna drew her ears flat against her head, opened her throat and gave a long-practised, sorrowful caterwaul. That cry always opened a window somewhere. Treacle was so impressed he stopped shaking for a moment, and stood up expectantly.
But the houses did not reply. The Lonnen stayed stubbornly silent.
And then, without any warning, it started . . . the howling.
It was far away at first. Beyond The Lonnen and the allotments, behind the swanky new houses. Past the waterside factories, way out across the river.
Bryna’s ears pricked at the sound. Across her back her fur rucked nervously.
“What’s that? What is it?” Treacle cried.
“It sounds like a dog . . . a dog calling.” Bryna’s head began to ache. This was no ordinary noise. What dog could possibly make a sound like that? Not a whine, or a yowl, it was more sorrowful, more pitiful than both. The call of an animal lost, hopelessly lost. Suddenly, from somewhere down upon the riverside, a second dog joined in. And closer still a third; and then another, and another . . . The town began to fill up with hopeless screams. Dogs, dogs everywhere, were howling. And surely not only dogs, but cats too; cats screaming their heads off.
Treacle’s eyes blinked saucer-wide with fear, he stanced low, and with fur bristling backed against the larger she-cat.
Bryna could not move. Mesmerised by the unreal cries, she had to listen, desperate for them to explain themselves.
And then the spell broke. A dog was barking in The Lonnen. His voice heavy and morose, but real. Definitely real. “That’s Kim,” spat Treacle. “The Mister’s old black mongrel, at number forty-seven. He must still be locked up in the sitting-room. And the best place for him!”
“Of course. Of course!” Bryna said. Her ears pricked. The howling did tell her something. “The crying dogs, the screaming cats, they’re all like Kim! All trapped, locked up, shut inside their houses. And there’s nobody to let them out.”
“You mean, just like there’s nobody to let us in?” Treacle whimpered.
“Yes,” Bryna said, and she licked frantically at her paws, as the full weight of the awful truth began to settle on her shoulders . . . The whole of mankind had gone from the town. And yet, how could that be? How could that possibly be? Men were like the sun, the wind and the rain. Like the day and the night. Like the stones of the ground and the birds of the air. Like the endless hate between dog and cat. Part of life. Always, always there. And if they were not there, then – then what?
Black clouds thickened across the grey sky. Rain came again, and properly this time. Hard, cold rain, that cut the fur from the body. The dogs still howled. When the rain came a third time Mrs Ida Tupps’ front doorstep was in darkness. The dogs had fallen silent. The cats were gone.
The e-book edition of Tooth and Claw, published by Crossroad Press, is available from all good e-book stores including:
Skin and Bone
Chapter One: Drought
No winter snow. No spring thaw. No April showers or summer rain. A mountain lake become a puddle. A running river, baked dry all but a sliver.
All things carried the scars of its passing.
A sky endlessly blue, relentlessly flat and cloudless. A brutal, hard white sun beating down day upon day without relief: nothing alive, nothing left whole beneath its pitiless stroke.
In open countryside the summer grass stood stiff and brittle, and bleached white; or else was burned black where the sun’s heat had been so intense it had erupted into swathing flame. Everywhere, tired trees held up their bare branches in protest to the sky. The few leaves that still clung to them were dry and twisted, and bristled and crackled when the wind blew.
The empty buildings of the town, that had seemed for so long to be beyond change, stood sun-scorched. Paint peeled from doors and windows; in places dried-out timbers turned and snapped in their settings, showering the streets with broken glass. Steel warped. Concrete cracked. Walls bulged uneasily in the heat of the day.
Between the buildings, out on the streets, the roads blistered, their tar melted and ran together in dangerous, stinking-hot pools: liquid death to an unwary traveller.
The garden hedges, the public lawns, the wind-blown weeds upon the riverbanks, the open pastures of the Town Moor: they were all dead (or at best dying). And the great black-and-white gawp-eyed beasts, the bullocks, that had for so long fed upon the Town Moor? Dead too. Their meat, what little there had been of it, had come as a welcome winter’s feast to starving animals – the dwindling numbers of town cats and dogs who somehow survived there still.
All that was left of the cattle now was their scattered bones: to serve as a reminder of an endless, unsatisfied hunger, to serve as a reminder of . . .
* * *
It was early evening. The sun still lingered in the sky, stood full and red above the far horizon as if it was reluctant to set; but at least the worst of its fierce heat had gone for the day. Blind Bryna walked slowly across the empty barren fields of the Town Moor. Let the unforgiving stone surface of a narrow, man-made road guide her paws as she moved downhill towards the riverside.
She was not alone. At one shoulder walked a large, black, heavy-boned she-cat, and at the other hobbled an equally large, three-legged, ginger tom. (From their stance and build it was obvious that Bryna’s companions were brother and sister.)
Kin or not, all three cats showed the same tell-tale signs of near-starvation. Their tongues were swollen, their bruised eyes sat deep within their heads, their fur was dull and patched, their skin hung loose upon their bones. And they moved slowly, deliberately, each step carefully chosen so as not to waste their body strength needlessly.
‘Must we drink from the river so close to the crossing, Bryna?’ asked the tom, Ki-ya. ‘It will be well guarded. Surely, Dart could find us an easier spot farther upstream—?’
‘Pah,’ spat Bryna, not letting him finish. ‘This is our prowl. This has always been our prowl. Why should we go out of our way to try and quench our thirst?’
‘Aye,’ said the she-cat, Dart. ‘And anyway, there isn’t a single stretch of water not bursting with foolish animals keen to do murder to keep it to themselves.’
Ki-ya shook his head, sadly. ‘I’m only saying . . . It’ll be dogs. And there’ll likely be a fight.’
‘Aye, well, then it’s more fool them,’ said Dart.
Bryna stood still a moment, lifted her nose; the slope of the hill had lessened beneath her paws and the slight, sweet, tantalising smell of running water came to her. They had come off the Moor and before them now, between lines of empty houses and heavy grey industrial buildings, was the river; what was left of it.
At the place of the crossing the fallen stones of a broken bridge stood high and dry off the river-bed. Once the river had hardly noticed the stones there as it rushed on by. Now, almost comically, a thin single thread of water struggled to find a way between them.
Ki-ya was right about the dogs. Quickly he counted eight: a mix of common mongrels lying carelessly in the dry dust at the edge of the river. And if they were more empty bags of bone than solid muscle, they were still full-grown animals; who did not bother to move themselves when the cats walked between them to reach the running water.
‘You’re not welcome here, moggy,’ growled some dog under his breath. There were howls of laughter, as if it was all some big joke, and eyes turned their way. But still the dogs did not move.
‘Where else, but the river, would you have us quench a thirst?’ said Dart, with a flick of her tail. ‘Doesn’t water come free?’
‘Aye, well, now that you come to mention it – it’s not so free for some of us any more,’ said the dog, ‘least ways, not for moggies!’ Again there were howls of laughter.
‘You cannot deny us a drink, brother,’ said Ki-ya, deliberately walking to the water’s edge and stooping as if to take one.
‘I am no brother of yours, cat. And I’ll deny you whatever I like if you cannot pay for it.’ Suddenly the dogs were sitting up. They were large animals in spite of the obvious effects of the drought, and loomed over the cats. Tails among them were wagging. It was obviously a game they had played before, and they thought themselves clever at it.
‘Pay for it?’ spat Bryna. She lifted her nose to scent out the dogs; wanted to be certain of their positions in case they attacked.
‘Times are hard if you hadn’t noticed,’ said the dog, who by his bold stance was obviously the leader of their makeshift pack. ‘You’ll get nowt for nowt here. So . . . What have you got in exchange for your drink of water? And if it’s an empty bag of wind, then you can bugger off back to wherever it is you came from. Before we decide to take ourselves a piece of cat for breakfast.’
‘I’ll give you bags of wind!’ Dart’s hackles lifted, she began to spit and pawed the ground with her open claws. Dogs began to growl; to bare their teeth.
‘Not so fast, sister,’ said Ki-ya, ‘not so fast. Eight against three wouldn’t exactly be a fair fight now, would it? And who would it serve to get into a fight? There’s not one of us here – not a dog or a cat – with the body strength to heal an open wound.’
The dog pack seemed to hesitate, and they fell silent. But the lead dog stood his ground, lifted his tail high, called Ki-ya’s bluff.
‘Nowt for nowt,’ he said again. ‘Nowt for nowt.’
Bryna tried to move to one side of him, only to find him moving with her, blocking her way with his body. And the other dogs, less brave than their leader, fell in behind, copied him like shadows.
‘Oh, I’ve had enough of all this nonsense,’ cried Dart. She lifted her claws and raked the first nose that came within her reach. Struck out again and again before the stricken animal had time to react. Had these dogs been seasoned fighters, then things might have gone badly for the cats in their weakened condition. Luckily the dogs were not. Full grown they might have been, but they were young still, and unpractised at the kill.
Suddenly the cats puffed up their fur and seemed to double in size. And they moved with such speed, surely there weren’t just three of them now, but half a dozen at least!
The dogs turned and bolted without making a proper fight of it. Squealing as they ran like frightened pups.
* * *
And so at last, Bryna, Dart and Ki-ya took their drink of water and quenched their burning thirst. But there was no real pleasure in it. They sat uneasily together at the edge of the river, their bodies still nervously agitated; the kick of their breath heavy and uneven after their run-in with the dogs. Had their world become so bad they were reduced to fighting overgrown pups for a lap of water?
Not for the last time, blind Bryna’s thoughts drifted back to a time, long ago, when men had walked the streets of the town. A time when, as a kit, she had been content to be the lazy lap-cat of a doddery old woman called Mrs Ida Tupps. She had lived in a house, been fed and watered on demand.
Then she remembered that long dark winter’s night when mankind had abandoned the town, abandoning their pets with it; leaving them behind, without pity, to fend for themselves. She remembered the almost impossibly hard struggle to stay alive; and those dogs and cats who, had learned to survive together. (Indeed, who, together in unity, defeated in battle the creature Dread Booga – the most vile of all their, two-footed enemies.) And once truly free of men, they had lived as it pleased them to live. They had hunted side by side as equals. Whelped their kits and pups together. Did not fight each other for the spoils of territory. Did not kill each other for sport. And there had always been food enough to share, water from the river in abundance.
Ah, but this was all ancient history now . . .
Because then had come the drought. The endless, unforgiving drought: that could not be battled with, or run away from; that had crept upon them slowly, and bit by bit stolen away . . . everything. By day there was only the murdering sun and the sun-scorched wind. By night only the bitter cold of a cloudless starlit sky.
The changes in the behaviour of the cats and dogs came as slowly as the drought. At first it was just young kits and immature pups picking silly, mindless arguments with each other. Bad-tempered bickering and name-calling. But then the adults had begun to fight openly in the street. To kill even; and claim it as an act of self-defence.
Suddenly, animals were prowling warily, and seldom alone. They began to move about in huddles or family groups, often waiting for the relative safety of nightfall before venturing out in search of food.
As the drought worsened, the unrest spread. The huddles became more organised; formal gangs or packs with leaders and seconds; with formidable territories and un-crossable boundaries, to be envied and fought over. And the riverside, with its failing supply of water, was the most prized territory of all.
Older, wiser animals had tried to make the others see the foolishness of it, to see sense, but to no effect. No sensible animal was listening. Endless thirst, endless hunger, and bitter, selfish rivalry has a way of hardening the softest of hearts. Soon, even the oldest of allies had found themselves choosing opposite sides. The broken bones of the long dead, which still littered the streets from ancient battles, were easily forgotten beneath the growing piles of new.
* * *
The three cats were not left to themselves for long. A small group of animals suddenly appeared between the fallen stones of the bridge on the far side of the river. Cats this time: two pairs. Ki-ya looked wearily between Dart and Bryna. He did not have the body strength, or the spirit, to face another fight so soon.
As the newcomers approached, it became clear – for those with eyes to see – that these cats were in no better condition than they were themselves. Slow-moving, gaunt and empty-bellied. But there was something else about them; they were all exactly the same peculiar colour. A disturbing brown. Not the brown of natural fur, but a permanent stain from ground-in dirt. And if the strangeness of their colour was not enough to worry an animal, their bodies stank – reeked of some foul unnatural scent. Bryna, blind, did not see their approach. But she smelled them all right, and, odd though it might seem, their awful stench lifted her spirits and brought a gentle purr to her throat. You see, these were sewer cats, the last of their kind; animals who, up until the drought, had survived by hunting the rats that once thrived in great numbers in the drainage system beneath the town. (The vermin were all but gone now. The sewers had long run dry and become dangerous, often blocked, prone to sudden rock falls and cave-ins. Only its ancient smells lingered to remind a cat’s nose.) Among these sewer cats came the oldest of Bryna’s friends. A big, gangly tom called Treacle.
‘Oh, B-Bryna, there you are. W-We’ve been looking all over for you,’ he began excitedly.
‘All over, Captain,’ echoed Lugger, a smaller sharp-eyed tom who always stood at Treacle’s side.
‘You’ll never guess what’s happened—’
‘Never guess, Captain—’
‘Welcome stranger,’ interrupted Ki-ya, with mock formality, and a pinch of his nose.
‘What? Oh, er, y-yes, yes, welcome stranger.’
With that, all the cats were purring and cuffing each other playfully, rubbing heads and tails in a simple display of open-hearted affection.
‘But now, now you must listen to me, Bryna,’ Treacle continued at last, when their welcome was done and a second, extravagant drink shared between them. ‘It’s Kim . . . Kim. He has called a Council.’
‘A Council, Captain,’ echoed Lugger.
‘The daft old dog has called a Council?’ spat Dart. ‘But what on earth for? What animal will even bother to turn up these days?’
‘It’s a gathering for all animals who have a voice to speak or a leg to stand on,’ went on Treacle as if he had not heard Dart’s rebuff. ‘Word has it, some cat’s got himself an idea he wants to share—’
‘A way to save us from this awful drought.’
‘Save us, Captain—’
‘Oh, is that all . . . an idea,’ said Dart, dipping her tongue into the thin trickle of river water.
‘Yes, yes— and I told him you would all come. And I mean, I mean – you will come, won’t you?’
‘Won’t you, Captain—?’
Blind Bryna lifted her nose to the sky, stood stock still. And in that moment felt a strange, unsettling coldness as the slightest of fleeting shadows passed across her body. Far away, a lone bird had flown across the face of the sun. Bryna shuddered with a sudden sense of deep foreboding. Why? She did not know, but the feeling of dread was real enough and would not pass away.
‘Yes,’ she said, firmly, answering Treacle’s question for them all. ‘Yes, we will come to the Council . . .
The e-book edition of Skin and Bone, published by Crossroad Press, is available from all good e-book stores including:
Chapter One: Sarah Lemming
Sarah Lemming? What is there to say about Sarah Lemming? Her name gives nothing much away.
Sarah Lemming is as thin as string, with granny knots for knees. Her face is as pale and lumpy as a plate of yesterday’s cold rice pudding. She’s got this wild frizz of bright red hair that’s about as easy to comb as a roll of barbed wire fencing – it makes her look as if she’s in a permanent state of shock. And you should see her on the move; it’s like watching a mistimed explosion of fireworks. She’s all gangly arms and legs, jerky fits and starts and streaks of red hair. About as graceful as a broken stick thrown for a dog!
No, Sarah Lemming is not a pretty sight. The gawky stage, her mother calls it. Plain ugly, say the boys at her school.
She’s the kind of girl who gets left standing on her own in the school yard at break times. You’ll know the sort. Twelve years old and as dizzy as a teapot lid. The original loopy-loo who should never be listened to! Or, at least, that’s what everyone’s always telling her – even the grown-ups.
Why? Take your pick.
It’s on account of her being mad. It’s on account of her having just far too vivid an imagination. It’s on account of her seeing things she should not see. You know. Things that nobody else can see. Things that don’t exist. Things that aren’t really there.
Well, like the Brugan.
Ah yes, the Brugan. The Brugan was a . . . The Brugan is a . . . The Brugan . . . (Forgive the hesitation. It’s just that it’s not always easy to explain the seemingly impossible.)
Put it this way. When was the last time you met a creature so flighty he could stop the whole world from turning, stop it dead, and for no better reason than he felt like it? A creature so wild, so dangerous, he could switch off the sun – click! Who could take your school (for example) and turn it into a medieval castle, change his mind and turn it into a supermarket, change his mind again and turn it into an overgrown tropical rain forest. And do it all in a single draw of breath!
And this is no joke. This is serious stuff. For real, and meant. Every word of it.
Of course, even Sarah Lemming didn’t really know who or what the Brugan was the first time she met him, or understand his truly awesome power. If only she had done—!
Ah, but wait. There’s no point in us getting carried away with the Brugan . . . not just yet.
This will not be making a lot of sense to you, not be sounding at all likely, perhaps? And maybe you’re already thinking, Sarah Lemming must have made the whole Brugan thing up, just to make fools of everyone? Either that, or else she really is as mad as they all say. Yes, well . . . that’s not her fault. And you’d do well to give her the benefit of the doubt, to take what you’re told the best way you can.
First off, her story does not begin with the Brugan. You might almost wish for her sake that it did. But no. Sarah Lemming’s story begins, sadly, with a death . . .
Chapter Two: The Frighteners
Have you ever been scared? Really really scared? Struck down with such a horrid dose of the frighteners you had to cross your legs tight, just to stop yourself from wetting your pants?
Sarah Lemming has.
Have you ever been so scared you could not tell a living soul? So scared you could only bottle it up deep down inside, hidden away where you hoped no one would ever notice?
Sarah Lemming has.
That’s the way it was the day her father died.
Though to be honest, she can’t talk about that – not without scrunching up her face really tight and instantly bursting into tears.
You see, there had only ever been the three of them. Father, Mother and Sarah. The three Lemmings! Though – if we’re still being honest – Sarah never did much like her mother.
Does that shock you? Don’t let it.
Two peas in a pod, her father had called them. Two strokes from the same brush. Two chips off the same block of wood. Mother and daughter – far too much alike to really like each other.
Of course, that didn’t stop them from loving each other, because loving and liking aren’t the same thing, aren’t the same thing at all (just don’t expect them to show it). And that didn’t stop them from loving Father, and, oh, with such a jealous passion. Father’s love was like a glue that bound them all together. He made them whole, somehow. He made them a family.
Then, he was dead. Simple as that. Thirty-four years old and killed in an accident at work. It doesn’t really matter how, or why, but that’s too young to die, even for a grown-up. And suddenly, for Sarah and her mother, there was this huge empty nothingness all around them. Around them, and in between them. An empty nothingness the size of . . . the size of everything. Sarah was lost. Mother was lost. They could not turn towards each other, so they turned away.
And if that does not scare you, nothing will.
* * *
It was not very long before Sarah’s mother turned up on the doorstep with her new boyfriend. He was just right for filling up an unbearable nothingness. Well, that’s what Mother thought, anyway. Though they did not speak about him, not before or after that first meeting; just accused each other with silent looks. Sarah’s father was conveniently forgotten. Left all alone in the cold, damp, icy little hole in the ground where the grown-ups had put him.
Almost from then onwards – wanted or not – Mother’s boyfriend became a more or less permanent part of their lives. His constant presence in everything they did had a sort of creeping inevitability about it. Even if, for Sarah, every meeting meant a battle with her mother, or a skirmish at least. Things were bound to come to a head sooner or later . . .
It was during the early summer. Sarah was standing at an open bedroom window. Not at home. Her mother had chosen neutral territory for this particular meeting. It was their third day in a bed and breakfast, in a remote Lakeland village called Town End. Sarah was watching the Sykeside bus – an ancient double-decker – as it came hurtling out of the distant hills. Charging down the toll road like a scalded cat. Late, same as it was every morning.
Down, down, down through the hills it ran. Coming ever closer.
The driver was pushing his bus too hard and too fast, trying to make the most of the steep slope. The bus was bouncing madly from side to side, churning up the leaves of the trees, leaving them dancing in its wake as it shot past. Suddenly, the bus dipped out of sight as it ran into a valley, disappeared as it dropped beneath the roll of a hill and the sway of a forest. It stayed out of sight for such a long stretch that Sarah began to think the ground must have opened up and swallowed it. But then it popped up again, like a rattling jack-in-the-box, sliding uncontrollably around twists and turns in the road as it approached Town End.
As the bus passed the bed and breakfast, the driver must have hit his brakes to slow down. But it did not stop, the bus just gave a sort of worried shrug. A door was flung open and a single passenger shaken loose, dumped at the side of the road like a discarded package. Then the bus ran on its way again, full tilt.
Sarah shuddered violently, and deep down inside of her a bottomless pit opened up. All at once she felt so miserably lonely. So desperately heartbroken, sad and full of hate. Oh, so overwhelmingly full of hate.
You see, below her, outside on the road, the ejected passenger was picking himself up, brushing himself down. And she knew who he was. She knew exactly who he was. She only wished she didn’t.
He was laughing and giggling to himself, playing the fool. Shaking his fist in mock anger after the disappearing bus. It was almost as if he was putting on a show, as if he understood he was being watched from the house.
He leapt clumsily over the closed iron gate at the top of the garden, and almost fell again. That brought and even bigger explosion of laughter.
What on earth could any woman possibly see in such a man, she thought?
His name was Finley, though you would never catch Sarah calling him that. He was short, he was round and fat. So she had taken to calling him Fat Finley. And if that sounds like an ugly insult, all the better. It was meant to. His flabby body first filled up his clothes to bursting point, and then spilled out at any convenient point. In addition, his head was completely bald and permanently ruddy red. And although he did have the usual arrangement of eyes, nose and mouth, so far as distinctive features went they were so unremarkable, they gave his face the disturbing appearance of being worn inside out.
‘Sa-rah! Sa-rah!’ Somewhere beneath her feet, downstairs at another window, Mother shrieked with delight. ‘Oh, Sa-rah! Come and see. He’s here! He’s here!’
Sarah heard the wooden front door clack open, and watched her mother run out into the garden. Mrs Lemming was almost a replica of her daughter. (Though older, of course, and with all the usual extra bumps and curves and wrinkles that were part and parcel of being grown up.) There was the same ragged shock of bright red hair. The same kind of awkward-looking gait as she moved. There was even the same gawky face, only on her mother it had been pulled and stretched into something that, very nearly, resembled beauty.
‘I know he’s here,’ Sarah mouthed silently, as if in answer to her mother’s call. ‘I know he’s here.’ Her heart sank. She did not want to play happy families.
She stayed at the window and watched the extravagant hugs and kisses as Mother and Fat Finley greeted each other. She even waved back numbly when they waved up at her. Whatever feelings there were between them, Sarah was on the outside and they were on the inside. It was like waving to a pair of strangers.
‘Sa-rah? Sa-rah!’ Mother’s voice called again, this time squealing from the bottom of the stairs. ‘You know he’s come especially. We’re going for a walk, up to the cottage. Don’t you want to see our new home, before we move in?’
Sarah shuddered at the thought.
Our new home.
There was no our. The word banged about angrily inside her head.
The grown-ups had discovered the cottage between them. The grown-ups had decided to buy it between them. And hadn’t they asked for Sarah’s opinion? Oh yes, they’d asked, and she’d disagreed, but it didn’t make any difference. They’d bought it anyway. ‘Your father’s house is a rent, Sarah.’ Mother had said. ‘Finley’s living in with his brother.’ It would be such an easy move. And so sensible. A new start – for them all.
How could her own mother do this to her? How could she do this to her dead father? Sarah hated her for it. She hated them both. And as her hate grew, it seemed to collect in the pit of her stomach like a poison.
She held on to the iron bed frame. Wanted to yell out. Wanted to scream and cry and use ugly, dirty words. Only the words would not come. So, she stayed silent. Waited for the sound of her mother’s footsteps on the staircase.
‘Sarah? Didn’t you hear me calling?’ Mother swept into the room without knocking, her face plastered with smiles.
‘No, I – No, I–’ Sarah’s mouth was so full up with things to say she could not speak.
‘See you downstairs in five minutes, then.’ Her mother’s smiles were turned off for a moment and became her look. ‘You’re not having one of your moods, are you? You’re not, you’re not feeling ill?’
‘No. Mother, I, I—’
Too late. Downstairs, Fat Finley was making friends with the landlady, laughing out loud at one of his own jokes. Mother’s smiles were turned back on again and she was off, skipping down the stairs.
The e-book edition of The Brugan, published by Crossroad Press, is available from all good e-book stores including:
Chapter One: Things That Go Bump in the Night
My name is Edward. Edward Gwyn Williams. I’m a school boy. I’m fourteen years old, near enough. Let me tell you something—
I will always be a school boy.
I will always be fourteen years old.
I AM DEAD.
Edward Gwyn Williams is dead.
Yes. As surely as flesh rots and dry old bones are dry old bones, I am stone dead. A ghost, a phantom, a spirit. You can call me what you like, but call me dead.
Now, that’s not said to worry you, and it’s not said to scare you stiff – though perhaps it might – it’s only said to let you know the facts of it. Yes, the facts.
You see, I’ve got a story to tell you. My story. Not the story of my life. Heavens, no! But the story of my death. And, more importantly, the story of what became of me afterwards.
First though, a word of warning. Take heed.
Dying is easy. Dying is all too easy. Anybody can do it, and undoubtedly will. It’s only a matter of time, a question of when and where and how. So mind you don’t go looking for death, life’s too short for that, too precious. Believe you me. I know.
That said . . .
How did I come to be dead?
How did Edward Gwyn Williams die?
I was at home. I tripped down the staircase on my way to the toilet. Don’t laugh at me. It’s not meant to be funny.
The month was October – late October. It was the middle of a freezing cold night. I remember there was rain. There was rain banging as hard as ice cubes against my bedroom window. Out in the back garden, a howling wind was kicking up a fuss among the plastic dustbins. Turning them over, stealing their lids, tumbling them noisily down the garden path. (That’s probably what woke me up in the first place.)
I suppose I should have clicked on a light as I jumped out of bed, but I’d come instantly awake and was instantly bursting with it. You’ll know that feeling? I was desperate for the toilet, and was already halfway across the landing before I realised it was pitch dark.
It was there I fell over Guy Fawkes. You know? The Guy Fawkes I’d been making for Bonfire Night out of my dad’s old jacket and my mum’s old tights stuffed full of newspapers. I’d left him sitting on the landing windowsill for safe keeping. He must have fallen off, because he wasn’t on the windowsill now. He was lying in the middle of the landing floor, hidden in the dark, perfectly positioned to trip me up and throw me head first down the stairs.
I fell in slow motion. Or at least, it felt like slow motion. Over and over I tumbled, falling forever in the darkness. And as I fell, Guy Fawkes fell with me. His cloth arms wrapped tightly about my legs.
Then— Thump! (That must have been me hitting the banister or the stairs.)
Thump! Bump! Snap! Crack!
Sounds too close to the noise of breaking bones to be anything else.
There was no pain with it though. Odd that. There was never any pain. None that I can remember, that is.
And as I fell in the darkness my mind’s eye began to play silly tricks on me, showing me flashes of things I could not possibly be seeing for real.
There was our house. Our big, ugly old monster of a house. Number thirteen, City Road. Perched on top of the hill. Above the town. The thing was, I was on the outside now. On the outside of the house looking down on it, as if I was floating about in the night sky. I could see its blackened chimney pots and its roof tops glistening wet, though I couldn’t feel the rain.
Floating higher still. Far, far below me I could see a curling river set deep in its valley, and splashed with electric light reflected off the street signs of the town. Further away, was a darker dry valley where a motorway ran off into the countryside.
Close to the house again. Only I was looking in through an upstairs window. I could see the outlines of familiar bedroom furniture. Against a wall I could make out an ancient iron radiator (it was banging and rattling, making a terrible fuss).
Now a different scene. I could see Glynis Chapman – not my girlfriend – just a lass from up our street. She was standing in her garden next to her back door, and suddenly bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Then— Flash! —
Something real again. All too real. A sudden stillness in the dark. I’d stopped falling. I was lying upside down at the bottom of the staircase. I could hear the rain beating against the hall window. I could smell the stale dusty smell of the hall carpet.
Then, from somewhere in the darkness, I heard a voice. An anxious, a naked, squealing voice. It was calling out to me.
‘Edward? Our Edward, is that you?’ It could have been my mum, but my mum in tears. Or else it was my sister, Aggie?
‘What’s happened? What’s going on? Where are y—’
The voice stopped in mid-sentence. It did not fade away or echo into silence. It simply stopped, and I never heard it again. Not ever.
In that same moment everything stopped.
And nothingness became everything . . .
Chapter Two: Light in the Darkness
Do you know what? When you’re dead you know you’re dead. Don’t ask me how you know, you just do. It’s the same as when you’re alive – you know you’re alive. Nobody has to tell you about it. So, there was no doubt. I knew I had died. The trouble is, when you’re very first dead, you simply don’t believe it. Or rather . . . Rather, you don’t want to believe it.
I mean, who in their right mind would want to end their life where I’d just ended mine? My life had hardly begun. I had ambitions. I had plans. I had a future. And I had a great long list (incomplete!) of Things I Really Must Get Around To Doing Very Soon.
- I hadn’t finished my maths homework.
- I hadn’t flown in an aeroplane.
- I hadn’t watched half the videos I’d recorded off the telly.
- I hadn’t even been drunk (not what you could call properly drunk).
- And as for girlfriends! Well, I hadn’t . . . You know, I just hadn’t.
- Do I need to go on . . .?
And fair enough, my list might read like nothing very spectacular to you, but try looking at it again from my point of view. I’m fourteen years old and my list of Things I Really Must Get Around To Doing Very Soon, had suddenly and irreversibly turned into my list of Things I Won’t Ever Be Doing!
* * *
How long the nothingness went on for I couldn’t say. When I came to myself it was completely dark, though some sense told me I was still lying at the bottom of the staircase at home. Number thirteen, City Road. I remembered the fall. The terrible fall . . . Had it been bad enough to kill me? I mean, if it had killed me, where was my poor broken body? Where were my family? Why weren’t my mum and my dad weeping and wailing? Why wasn’t my sister, Aggie sobbing her heart out? And where were the angels? Where was the bright light, and all that other magic stuff, to show me the way up to Heaven?
Let me tell you, there was none of it. Only the dark. The never-ending, the unchanging dark. No shadows. No form. Not even the dim light of the street lamps seeping in through the hall window to bring relief.
And in that dark there was a silence. An utter, a complete silence. No wind blew. No rain pelted the windows. I couldn’t hear the sound of my own breath!
‘Hu— Hu— Hu—’ I tried it. I wasn’t breathing.
I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t hurting. I couldn’t see. I didn’t even want to go to the toilet!
I tried breathing again.
‘Hu— Hu— Hu—’
I thought really hard about breathing until, to my relief, I felt my chest rising, lifting and falling as it filled with air. Or so I thought.
I relaxed a little. That was a mistake. As soon as I stopped concentrating my breathing simply stopped too. And I couldn’t get it going again.
As I lay there, alone in the dark, I tried to make sense of it all, when there wasn’t any sense. (Well, not if I wasn’t ready to believe the simple truth . . . that I was dead!) I began making up excuses. The whole thing was obviously a horrible nightmare. That’s all. Either that, or maybe, just maybe, I really had fallen head first down the stairs and was at that very moment lying in a hospital bed in the deepest of comas.
I tried pinching myself awake. I dug my nails in hard, enough to bruise my skin black and blue, the way the rude lads at school pinch the bums of the girls in the dinner queue to make them squeal, but nothing happened. I wasn’t even certain I felt it!
To be honest with you, I was beginning to get scared. I stood up. I wobbled uneasily to my feet. I tried to take a step in the dark. That was another serious mistake. It was my body that was the problem. You see, there was no proper physical sense of weight or movement to it. And I was definitely feeling less than solid. A whole lot less than solid!
I panicked! I stretched out what I hoped were fingers, searching the darkness for anything that might be familiar, only to draw them back again. What if I really was dead? (I was still arguing the point.) What if I’d become some kind of ghost? Surely, my fingers would simply pass right through anything I tried to touch? Wasn’t that how it worked?
I had to prove it to myself. One way or the other. I struck out hard, repeatedly slapped at the darkness with the flat of my hand, until I knew I’d hit something. A wall? To my relief the wall stayed solid and firm under my hand.
After that I took things a lot more carefully. I walked my fingers slowly across the wall. I touched what felt like a picture frame under my fingers. I found a wall lamp with a shade over an electric light bulb, and a switch. I tried the switch. The lamp didn’t work.
‘I wish you were a real light.’ It was only a thought, spoken on the inside of my head. Not words, out loud. But something very odd happened. Out of the darkness a light flickered. It flashed momentarily, burned feebly, withered and died.
Astonished, I repeated my thoughts. I kept them on the inside of my head. ‘I wish, I wish you were a real light . . .’ Again a flicker of pale light broke the darkness. It was as if my thoughts were something real that could be carried through the darkness to light the lamp. This time, as the light withered, it did not die. Not quite. I began to realise, the more I concentrated, the harder I tried, the better the light glowed. The more fiercely it burned.
There’s something you need to know about that light. I understand it now, though of course I didn’t then. It wasn’t the light of the wall lamp shining. There wasn’t a light bulb flickering in the dark. In fact light is probably the wrong word for it altogether. You see, when you’re dead there is no light. Not what you or I would call real light. There is no sun. There is no moon. There are no candles to burn down. There is no electricity to power a sixty watt bulb. No. There is only weird-light. Spectral-light. The light that belongs to the dead. The light that belongs to the things of the dead.
The wall lamp was showing itself to me because I wanted to see it there. And the more I wanted to see – the more I tried desperately to see – the more I began to see.
Gradually the spectral-light spread out along the wall. It moved across the passageway in one direction and crept up the staircase in another. Soon I could make out the hall window and the long mirror that hung on the wall close by, even see as far as the front door.
What was being revealed to me there would have taken my breath away, if I’d had the breath to take away.
Was this really number thirteen, City Road? Was it?
I recognised Guy Fawkes. He was lying in a crumpled heap on the hall floor, exactly where he had fallen. His arms – the arms of my dad’s old jacket – were caught underneath him, and his stuffed-tights head was thrown back. I could see the silly toothy grin I’d drawn on his face with a fat felt-tip pen. He looked just the way he was supposed to look, if strangely colourless . . .
(That was something else I had to get used to. Death has no colour – just as it has no light – or at least, little enough colour to speak of. Only the black of darkness. Only the drab grey tones of spectral-light, sometimes tinged with a morbid luminous blue-green, giving shape and form to the objects it clings to.)
In life, the carpet Guy Fawkes was lying on was a plain and simple purple, almost brand new. Now it too had lost its colour and was an endless, toneless grey. Worse still, as the carpet began to climb the stairs it also lost its newness, lost its plainness, and became instead, a worn out old rag covered in a swirl of ugly-looking drab grey flowers.
It made no sense. But then, what did?
Halfway up the staircase the wooden banister simply stopped being made of wood and turned into black wrought iron. Two steps higher and the stairs themselves split in two. One set kept going the way they had always gone and managed to reach the top, but the other took a sharp turn to the right and buried themselves in the solid wall.
And if the front door was still reassuringly, recognisably mine, I could not say the same about the other closed doors I could see. The dining-room door had obviously been badly scorched by fire; its paint was blistered and peeling. While the living-room door had an old-fashioned, round brass handle that hung down sadly from its spindle, as if it might not be attached to the knob on the far side.
But forget the doors. There’s more nonsense upon nonsense. Take a look along the hallway behind me. The kitchen, and the whole back end of the house, had vanished behind a monstrous slab of bare stone wall that grew up through the floor and disappeared into the ceiling. That stone wall might well have belonged on the side of a church or a castle maybe, but it did not belong there.
And where there was not something unusual to see, there was nothing to see. And I do mean, there was nothing to see.
There were wide gaps in the walls and in the floor and in the ceiling with nothing between them. Not an empty nothing full of holes; a solid nothing, a smooth, an impenetrable nothing, that could be touched, that could be felt, but never passed through. (Believe me, I tried.)
Confused, I turned to the hall window. I peered out through the glass, searching the darkness there for something I might recognise, something I could more easily understand than all this.
There was only more nothing. Endless nothing. And whether it was solid and touchable or just an ordinary dark empty space I couldn’t tell.
I stayed at the window. Kept on staring and staring, and hoping . . . and hoping. And in the end I did see something out there, at least I think I did. Something vague, something distant. Was there spectral-light, breaking into the darkness outside? Maybe.
Though I’ll tell you what there wasn’t. There wasn’t a single reflection, or a shadow. There wasn’t a moon, or a star-flecked night sky. There wasn’t a wind or rain or rumbling storm clouds. In fact, there was no weather at all.
Then it struck me . . . I had seen the last of weather.
There was going to be no more weather for Edward Gwyn Williams.
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The arc of a rising sun lifted above the clouds, broke free, bleaching the morning sky silver-white.
With it came a momentary breeze, turning the leaves of a tree, tossing them restlessly. A disturbed red squirrel skittered between its branches searching for a safe refuge among the new summer foliage. A pair of anxious blackbirds, nesting there, began a fierce argument and sprang noisily into the air.
While deep, deep within its boughs, another life, another far more ancient spirit stirred and wakened.
She began to stretch, reaching up, through trunk and branch, through twig and leaf, into every last corner of her beloved tree. She relished the slowly gathering warmth of the new day she discovered there.
However, just as the wind quickly stilled, just as the squirrel and the quarrelling birds came quickly to rest again, so too did she. And mindless of a world outside, she drew back deep within herself and gave in once more to an ageless, peaceful slumber.
Chapter One: A Bad Do
It began with an argument.
It happened just outside, on our front doorstep in Collingwood Terrace. It wasn’t long after they closed down the local Glassworks, the day the bulldozers moved in to flatten the Oldburn allotments. I thought all Hell was breaking loose! There was my mum, and there was my dad, and they were going at each other like a pair of wild tomcats. This was one of their real Bad Do’s. It was a hot, sticky day at the beginning of the summer holidays. I was in the front room trying to keep cool, with the doors and the windows flung wide open. I saw it all. I heard every last word. I’ll tell you, my mum and dad were professionals; they could have argued for England.
‘I told you not to go down there today! The allotments are a building site! You nearly got yourself killed!’ That was my mum shouting, her voice full of worry.
‘Aye! But I stopped them, didn’t I?’ That was my dad, shouting back at her, his voice full of angry huffs and puffs. ‘They came at us with bulldozers as big as this house! But, by thunder, we fettled them! By thunder we did!’
My dad couldn’t keep still. His arms were flailing as he paced excitedly up and down the pavement. My mum strutted after him, her hands held rigidly by her side, stiff as a board. And all the while, Skipper – that’s our old mongrel of a dog – chased at their heels. He yapped and he barked and he wagged his tail. He had the time of his life.
‘Do you have to yell and bellow?’ my mum cried. ‘Making a fool of yourself in the middle of the street, where there’s anyone listening?’
I saw the neighbour’s curtains twitching, just then.
My mum grabbed hold of my dad’s arm, as if to pull him indoors. I thought for a moment he was going to turn around and clobber her, but he only jerked himself free.
At that, Skipper sat himself down as if to watch, his head on one side and his tongue hanging from his mouth, panting for breath.
‘Let the nosey-parkers listen!’ my dad roared. ‘I’ll give them their tittle-tattle! And it’s not me who’s the fool woman!’ He jabbed his finger accusingly. ‘I told them. Make no mistake. If you’re coming onto these allotments with those ruddy machines you’re coming through me first! And I wasn’t standing alone. Billy Armstrong and Bob Masey were right there with me!’
‘Oh, John! I don’t know which of you is the bigger idiot!’ My mum was shaking her head. ‘Nearly two hundred jobs went with the Glassworks. So, where were all the rest of them? Eh? I’ll tell you . . . out looking for work where they were supposed to be!’
‘Whose side are you on?’ My dad’s words were snapping. ‘I’ve won myself medals for them allotments! And believe you me it was a close run thing today. They kept on coming at us, bulldozers revving up their engines, louder and louder. Thinking they were going to scare us away!’ He paused and took a huge gasp of breath, determined to have the rest of his say without further interruption. ‘Until they saw we meant business that is, saw we weren’t for shifting. Then the feller up front was all knobs and handles! You should have seen him! He had to swerve his machine aside double-quick time to miss us! He ends up knocking a hole clean through my allotment fence. Took it, and half the old oak tree with him down the riverside embankment. Snapped them up like matchsticks!
‘And that weren’t the finish of it, neither. The silly feller only goes and tops it off by taking some kind of a bad turn. A stroke they reckon he’s had. He fell out of his seat. Flat on his face in among the brambles! Ha!’
By now, I had my nose pressed up flat against the front room window. I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but I wasn’t about to miss out.
‘For goodness’ sake! Will you lower your voice!’ my mum cried. ‘And shame on you! Calling a poor man who’s been taken ill at his job!’
‘Aye, well. Maybe he shouldn’t have been doing the job in the first place. Not if he wasn’t fit!’
Suddenly, my mum and dad stood stock still, facing each other, and only millimetres apart.
‘John Dobson, I think you’ve been drinking, and that’s beer doing your talking for you!’
‘Aye, well . . .’ My dad was blustering. ‘Maybe it is. But by heck, it’s about time folks around here had something to celebrate. What do they say? It’s an ill wind that brings no good with it? There might be one feller laid out in hospital, but it’s put a stop to the rest of them. There’ll be no more damage done on that allotment today!’
My dad folded his arms, puffed himself up like a strutting peacock. He thought he’d won. He thought he’d got in the last word. Only he hadn’t.
‘Oh, John! You and your allotments! You live in the past. You know what the Demon Council said. Can you fight them forever? The land belongs to the Glassworks. It’s part of their – what did they call it? – Urban Regeneration. They’re building posh riverside apartments, with shops and businesses. There’ll be new jobs, even a bit of a country park. And you know, by the time it’s all done we’ll hardly recognise it!’
There was an odd, cold silence then. My mum had made a near fatal mistake. She’d mentioned the Demon Council. (That was my dad’s nickname for the local councillors who’d started all this when the jobs at the Glassworks had gone). It was as if a solid steel wall had suddenly fallen in between them.
When, at last, my dad spoke again, his voice had dropped to a seething whisper. ‘I don’t suppose there’ll be much call for fifty-odd, time-served glass blowers in their la-di-dah Urban Regeneration? No . . . It’ll be mindless supermarket shelf stacking! Or sitting behind desks answering telephones!’
My mum gave a long, deep sigh. She knew what was coming next. So did I.
‘In my old man’s day, it was the railways and the mines they took away. Then it was the shipyards. Now the Glassworks has gone. Did you know they’ve been making glass in Oldburn for more than two hundred years? Two hundred years! It’s more than a piece of history, woman. It’s a part of what we are.’ He held up his open hands as if that helped to demonstrate. ‘Don’t you see? Do they really think they can replace all that with a few fancy shops? Stick a few shrubs in the ground and call it a country park! They’ve drained the life and soul out of this village. Well, I’ll be damned if they’re taking my allotment too . . .’
To be honest, it was a tired old speech. My mum knew all the arguments by heart. She was sick of hearing them. We all were. But then that was my dad all over, fighting for lost causes. The more the merrier!
‘John Dobson, you’re a grocer’s book-keeper! You’ve never been down a coalmine in your entire life.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘You were never on the inside of the Glassworks!’
‘That is not the point!’
‘You’ve never even been unemployed, though there are plenty of poor souls around here who are.’
‘That is NOT the point, woman!’
I was certain; at any moment, one of them was going to explode.
I’d been thinking of slipping out of the house by the back door, desperate to see for myself what had gone on at the allotments. Only I didn’t dare. Not with their Bad Do still going full swing. It would be much better if I hung around. In case I had to stop them from murdering each other.
Chapter Two: More Trouble at Teatime
With my parents, a Bad Do could last for several days. Fortunately, by teatime this one had already moved on and had reached the Dark Brooding Silence stage. And this, believe it or not, was a good sign. It meant their argument was almost ready to blow itself out and they were heading for their Big Finish.
At the tea table I kept my head down and stayed well out of it. I fed our Skipper tit-bits under the table. I filled my mouth with cheese and chutney sandwich so that I didn’t have to speak. Only in the end, the atmosphere got so tense I decided that if somebody didn’t just say something, then there really would have been a murder committed.
‘Why’s it called a stroke then, Dad?’ I blurted out. It was the first thing I could think of. ‘You know, the sickness that took that feller on the bulldozer. Why do they call it a stroke?’
My dad looked up slowly from his plate, his face stony-blank, but his eyes boiling hot. ‘You’d better ask your mother, son,’ he said, looking her way. ‘She’s the one with all the smart answers in this house.’
Their eyes locked, but they did not speak. It was my dad who was first to look away. He took a huge bite out of his sandwich and began to chew noisily.
My mum was holding a butter knife. Her hand was shaking. She put the knife down almost too carefully. She laid it neatly at the side of a slice of white bread, as if she’d calculated the distance between them.
‘It’s folklore, Thomas,’ she said, turning towards me. Her voice sounded oddly thin and strained, but she was trying very hard to smile.
‘Folklore?’ I repeated innocently enough, as if I hadn’t noticed.
‘They used to say it was the faeries who made us ill; when we took sick. In the olden days, that is.’ Her eyes flicked accusingly at my dad. ‘A faerie-stroke I think they called it, back then.’ She paused before adding, ‘Anyway, John . . . It wouldn’t be a bad idea if you were to visit that poor feller in the hospital. Just to see he’s all right.’
Well, that was as much as my dad could take. He suddenly slapped down his half-eaten sandwich. I heard a sharp crack that sounded just like one of my mum’s best tea plates breaking underneath it.
‘Just to see if he’s all right!’ he yelled. ‘For crying out loud! First you’re spouting the Demon Council’s propaganda at me. Then you’re trying to fill up the lad’s head with more of your silly nonsense. Now you want me to visit the daft so-and-so in hospital?’
‘It is not silly nonsense, Thomas,’ my mum squeaked at me. ‘It’s just a story . . .’
With that, she was up on her feet. She practically lifted me out of my seat. She pushed an apple into my hand and packed me off outside through the back door. Our Skipper came scuttling after me, with the help of my mum’s foot at his backside. Their Bad Do had finally reached their Big Finish. My parents were going to settle their argument in private. They were going to tell each other what they were really thinking.
Chapter Three: Jenny Flynn
Behind our back door three concrete steps led down into a walled back garden. I was standing on the top step. Skipper was sitting patiently next to me, tongue lolling from the side of his mouth. When I was very young, I used to think I could see the whole world from that top step. Maybe I could.
It was early evening. The sun was still shining down on Oldburn village. It was hot too. There was the faint but satisfying smell of blistering paint coming off the back door.
Oldburn had begun originally as nine rows of terraced houses, set out in strict parallel lines. Walled back gardens facing walled back gardens, until the very last row. They were built for the coal miners. But that was over a hundred years ago. Now there were newer houses crowding in on us, eating into the last of the surrounding farmland. Though I could still see fields, and a country lane we called the Wagon Way. The Wagon Way separated us from the allotments and led on to the riverside and the Glassworks . . .
Well, the Glassworks as was. There wasn’t much left of it. The owners saw to that. They quickly stripped it to the bare bones; started the very day it closed. I remember how its heavy black silhouette rose up like a giant against the skyline, blotting out the sunset. Now the buildings were broken and battered, full of ugly holes for the sun to peer through. It looked to me like the crumbling skeleton of some ancient dinosaur. All they were going to save of it was the glasshouse cone: a monster of a tower, hundreds of metres high and built with a million bricks. A miracle of eighteenth century engineering, my dad said. He knew this feller down at the university; they wanted to turn it into some kind of a monument. It seemed it was important industrial archaeology. My mum said that if they were to leave that university feller and my dad in the same room together for long enough they’d end up turning the whole country into a museum.
A voice from the back lane made me jump.
‘Are you coming out, Thomas?’
Whoever it was, they were standing with their eye against the crack in our back gate, spying on me.
‘No, I’m not,’ I said, to nobody in particular.
I was still holding my apple so I took a bite out of it. I knew there were none of my mates about. My best friend, Matty Henderson, was off for the summer, on his holidays. And the Liddle twins, who’d always lived next door, had suddenly moved away when the Glassworks closed. Their house had stayed empty ever since. Mind you, there’d been a lot of that going on lately. There was more than one set of blacked out windows in, Collingwood Terrace.
I threw my apple at the back gate, just to make it rattle. Skipper pricked his ears at that, but only tipped his head to one side and settled down to watch, lazily.
‘You missed me!’ the voice cheeked. ‘You missed me by a mile!’
‘Weren’t even trying,’ I said.
I’d worked out who it was. Jenny Flynn, from Stephenson Terrace. Number Twelve. Jenny Flynn sticking her nose in. She was younger than me, only nine years old, but already the village pest. A skinny spill of a girl, with a tangle of blond hair she was always twiddling around her fingers. I’ll tell you, once you had her hanging around you there was simply no getting rid.
‘Awe . . . Come on, Thomas. Come out. I know something you don’t know.’
I didn’t bother to answer her.
If I was ever going to get down to those allotments I had to get myself moving. From a standing start I went straight into a gallop. I leapt down the steps, yanked open the gate and took off along the back lane without once looking back. Skipper found a sudden new lease of life and came skittering at my heels.
‘Where are you going, Thomas?’ Jenny Flynn shouted after me.
‘Nowhere!’ I cried.
‘Then, can I come with you?’
‘No, you can’t.’
I didn’t let up all the way there. At the corner of our terrace there was a soppy courting couple . . . you know, kissing and hugging and that. Now, normally that would have been worth at least a couple of minutes of cheek. More so, seeing as it was Ken Bradshaw’s older brother from number Twenty-Eight, with Mary Evans, his stuck up girlfriend from the posh new houses. But there was no cheek that day, not with Jenny Flynn still shouting after me.
To throw her off the scent I doubled back on myself. I zigzagged. I ran down Earl Grey Terrace and then back up St Georges’ before changing direction and charging down the Wagon Way.
Halfway down, I passed this lad messing about in the Back Fields. Allun Flemming it was. Still, I didn’t stop. Flemming’s a couple of years older than me, and no mate. Flemming’s nobody’s mate. A loner. And bit on the slow side too, if I’m honest, with a queer unwashed smell about him. (You just didn’t ever go saying that to his face.) He was already six-foot tall. A gentle giant until he got himself steamed up. Then he’d clog you good and proper. Anyway, he was always out there in the Back Fields, or else roaming through the trees in Tiggy’s Dene. He was always on his own. He collected things, you see. Nature. Bits of rock, seeds and stuff. He kept what he found in old glass jam jars stacked up on the ledge of his bedroom window. You could see them from the street.
When I reached the very bottom of the Wagon Way I was in for a shock. And that was before I saw what the Demon Council had done to my dad’s allotment.
There, waiting for me, sitting on the grass verge as bold as brass, was Jenny Flynn. I didn’t need telling how she’d beaten me there. She’d called my bluff, guessed what I was up to. She’d raced down the Wagon Way on her bicycle so that she could be there first. (Her bike was propped lazily against a wooden fence pole).
Now, there were two things I could have done. I felt like belting her around the earhole, and hang the consequences when my dad found out. Instead, I ignored her. I gave a whistle. I called Skipper to my side with a pat and a fuss. I walked right passed her without even a glance her way.
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