Authors: Clare Chambers
You're all psychos, I thought.
bout of low spirits had lifted and she had finished â or rather abandoned â her stormy painting, so Daniel suggested going into Port Julian to see a film.
Mum said she'd be glad to have them out from under her feet â which made Daniel think of a lump of squashed chewing gum â and offered them a lift into town after lunch. They were to make their own way back by the evening bus, which took a meandering two-hour route along every possible road, or by hitching a lift. Surprisingly hitch-hiking was a common method of transport on Wragge for people of all ages. In a small place where everyone knew each other and petrol was expensive, it made sense to fill up empty spaces in cars, but Daniel and Louie still hadn't got used to the sight of elderly women or girls younger than Louie, standing on lonely stretches of road to flag down passing cars. And their mum hadn't quite plucked up the courage to stop for any of these hitchers â which had done nothing to increase their popularity with the locals.
The cinema was a small 1930s Art Deco building on the corner of Main Street. It was only open on Fridays and Saturdays and had one screen showing a different film each week â often years, occasionally decades, after its original release. Faded posters outside promised that
was âcoming soon'.
“Ohmygod,” said Louie, folding up with laughter. “That's, like, a hundred years out of date!”
This particular afternoon they were in luck: the film on offer was
The Bourne Identity
, which at least was one that they didn't mind seeing again. They entered the dimly lit lobby that smelled of ancient cigarette smoke and old carpet, and bought their tickets from a plump middle-aged woman behind the counter. She seemed quite excited to have customers. Having served them she scuttled around to the refreshment booth which advertised salted popcorn, vanilla ice cream and inevitably the bitter lemon drink. They felt obliged to buy something since she was standing there so eagerly, so they ordered a vanilla cone each.
“You're the first youngsters to have bought one of these in years,” she said, which made Daniel and Louie exchange looks of alarm. Just how old was this stuff going to be exactly? “I'm going to have one myself. And I'll tell you what I do with mine. I dip it in chocolate.” She plunged the vanilla cone into a tub of sauce, which set instantly on contact with the cold ice cream to form a hard shell. “Do you want some?”
It looked quite tempting, so Daniel and Louie accepted her offer. “It's nice to see someone eating proper food,” she said, taking their money and carefully counting out the change. “Instead of that horrible Leaf.”
She ducked out from the refreshment booth and stood in front of them, now in the role of usherette, solemnly tearing their tickets in half before showing them into the vast empty cinema. “Sit anywhere,” she said, sweeping her torch over the rows of steeply ranked seats. “And I'll get started. You've got the back row to yourselves,” she added, with a suggestive wink which made Daniel and Louie recoil in horror.
The woman was already letting herself through a concealed doorway into the projectionist's room. Daniel and Louie made a point of sitting in the middle of the auditorium, skulking low in their seats, shaking with laughter.
“What would she have done all day if we hadn't shown up?” Louie hissed.
“Just sat there eating ice cream, I guess,” said Daniel, and then the safety screen started to rise with a jerking motion, which set them off all over again.
“Do you think she's round the back cranking some huge handle?” he whispered, miming, until Louie had to flap her hand at him to get him to shut up because she was choking on her ice cream.
When they emerged into the open air again it was still only mid-afternoon, and the bus didn't leave for another two hours. They'd decided against hitch-hiking: that would involve making polite conversation with a stranger â possibly more than one stranger â all the way home. To kill the remaining time they strolled up Main Street looking in the shop windows. The only other people about on a weekday afternoon were mums with pre-school children or pensioners. It had never really struck Daniel before that the pavements belonged to different groups of people at different times of day.
The shops weren't that different from any other parade in a small country town â and there was nothing much to tempt Daniel or Louie. On the corner of the street was a fish and chip shop called
The Happy Haddock
TODAY'S SPECIAL: FISH AND CHIPS
proclaimed a signboard in the window. Daniel had a sudden, powerful craving for chips. He hadn't eaten any takeaway since leaving London, and could almost taste the steaming vinegar and floury potato as he imagined that first bite. But the shop was closed and wouldn't re-open until after their bus had left.
“Why would the haddock be happy?” demanded Louie, a strict vegetarian. “They're murdered, boiled in oil then eaten!”
In the Centennial Gardens â Port Julian's public park of ornamental flower beds and the war memorial â a group of volunteers was building a huge bonfire. The wigwam-shaped structure stood at least ten metres tall and was made of branches, fence panels and other debris presumably brought down by Hurricane Edna, as well as sticks of furniture and other junk donated by local residents.
As Daniel and Louie approached the rope cordon surrounding the pyre they could see broken ladders, banisters, deckchairs and even an old rocking horse which seemed to be rolling its painted eyes in terror at its impending fate.
“Bit early for Guy Fawkes Night, isn't it?” said Daniel. “It's more than a month away.”
His remark was overheard by one of the helpers â a man in paint-smeared overalls. “It's not for Guy Fawkes; it's for the 4th of October. You must be new,” he added. “Everyone here knows about the 4th of October.”
Daniel nodded, wondering how many centuries he would have to live on Wragge before he stopped being considered ânew' by the other inhabitants. He was about to ask what happened on the 4th of October when he was distracted by Louie prodding him in the ribs.
“Isn't that your bag?” she was saying, pointing into the heart of the woodpile. “The one that got nicked.”
Daniel followed the angle of her outstretched finger and saw the red nylon cord and blue fabric half buried under a beer crate.
“It looks like it,” he agreed. “Doesn't mean it's the actual one though.” Even so, if it wasn't his bag, it was an identical one in equally good condition. Why, he wondered, would people keep trying to dispose of perfectly good bags? He was half tempted to climb over the cordon and retrieve it, but tugging it free would probably bring down the entire heap. He tuned back in to Louie's chatter; she was complaining that the ice cream had made her thirsty.
“Let's see if there's anywhere that sells Diet Coke,” she suggested. “Isn't there supposed to be a big supermarket? We could stock up.”
Daniel asked the man in overalls for directions and he pointed them along the Darrow road. “Huge building,” he assured them. “Can't miss it.”
After fifteen minutes' walk they reached a small Co-op with parking spaces for twelve cars and wondered whether they'd taken a wrong turning. But it was the island's main supermarket, and there was, of course, no Coke. The detour wasn't entirely wasted: Daniel bought a two-kilo bag of potatoes and a litre of vegetable oil. He was going to have chips tonight no matter what.
Back at The Brow Mum had had a successful afternoon absorbed in her translation, which meant she was in a good mood for once, but had forgotten to get anything for dinner.
“Something came through the door for you earlier,” she remembered, as they sat at the kitchen table, peeling and chopping the potatoes for a feast of chips. She fetched it from the dresser and handed it over, leaving milky potato fingerprints on the paper.
It was a printed flyer advertising â4th October Celebrations' in Port Julian.
Fireworks! Live Music! Hog Roast! Mulled Wine! Centennial Gardens 7pm. Night Buses will be running.
On the back was a handwritten message.
To Daniel and family,
This is usually fun so come if you can. It gets really crowded, but I'll try to look out for you near the war memorial at seven-ish.
jobs was to take Chet out for his last walk of the day at about 11 p.m. To begin with he'd not ventured further than the end of the garden, using the light from the house as a guide. But now Daniel began to go further afield, armed with a powerful torch. He never met anyone on these walks, and the houses he passed were always in darkness. The islanders had fixed habits and one of these was going to bed early.
The night before the 4th of October celebrations there was a full moon, which by some trick of the atmosphere seemed magnified to twice its normal size and pale orange in colour. It hung above the trees like an unshaded bulb, bathing the landscape in murky light all the way to the horizon. The nights were cold now and already smelled of autumn.
Daniel was drawn, as always, in the direction of Stape. It was a long walk, even in daylight when the going was good, and he'd never made it all the way in the dark. Apart from the distant shushing of the sea and the crunch of their footsteps, all was quiet. Once they were up on to the straightish path across the moor he switched off the torch and let his eyes grow used to the moonlight. Chet had his nose to the ground following scent trails and after a minute or so Daniel could pick out the details in the landscape quite clearly. The moon had risen directly ahead of him, huge and glowing. A belt of wispy cloud had blown across its face and for a moment it looked as though Saturn itself had changed course and come bowling through space towards Earth â making Daniel's heart gallop with a sort of excited dread â and then the cloud dispersed and it was just the cheesy old moon again.
He hadn't planned to walk all the way to Stape, but there seemed no good reason to stop so he kept going, and eventually they found themselves looking down on the village. He could see the boxy outline of the school; though it was long after midnight, somewhere deep within the building a light was burning. Daniel supposed it was a security guard on patrol, but then almost laughed aloud at the idea of âsecurity' in a place where nothing was ever locked, and nothing ever stolen. It would have to rank as Most Pointless Job in the World.
He had a sudden image of Kenny with his life-saving certificate, keeping an all-night vigil beside the pool, just in case. However the light wasn't coming from the pool house, but from somewhere in the main block. It was oddly reassuring that Mum was not the only person who worked through the night.
Walking down through the village he took a detour past Ramsay's house. Not for any reason, he told himself, just for somewhere to go. But he couldn't help glancing up at her window as he passed to see if she was still up, and was both relieved and disappointed that she wasn't. After all, how would he explain skulking under her window in the dead of night? Her curtains were closed and a row of pot plants stood on the sill â a supply of Leaf to see her through winter.
He hurried away, determined to head back home. As they passed the school playing field Chet, who had been keeping close at Daniel's heels for most of the journey, gave a few short barks and took off just as he had during the five-a-side football match. This time, instead of haring across the grass, he vanished around the side of the building towards the car park and tennis courts, still barking. Immediately the light in the building went off.
That's it, pal
, fumed Daniel, striding after him.
No more midnight walkies for you. Five minutes in the back garden, a quick pee up against the apple tree and that's your lot
He caught up with Chet by the wheelie bins. One of them had been pushed over, spilling its contents, and the dog was growling at some unseen creature which had clearly been enjoying a good forage and was cornered behind the other bins. Daniel clipped Chet's lead on, speaking to him in a low, calm voice, and shone the torch into the shadows. He gave a violent twitch of surprise and nearly dropped the torch. The cone of light had picked out the crouching figure of a woman, who now straightened up, shielding her eyes from the glare. It was Helen Swift, the music teacher. Her face was pale with fright, and it took her slightly longer to recognise Daniel, dazzled as she was by the glare.
“Oh, it's you,” she said with relief, pressing a hand against her heart and blowing out a lungful of held-in breath. “Oh, thank God. I thought that dog was going to rip my throat out. Have you got hold of him?”
“Shhh!” Helen hissed urgently. “And turn that thing off !” She pointed at the torch. “What are you doing here, anyway?” she added.
“Walking my dog,” he whispered back. “He suddenly shot off so I followed. What are
Helen raked her fingers through her long hair. “I . . . lost a pile of lesson notes today. I thought they might have been thrown away by mistake . . . so I decided to come and have a quick look.”
This was such an incompetent lie Daniel couldn't even be bothered to challenge it. If she wanted to rummage around in wheelie bins at midnight it was her business.
From somewhere on their side of the building came the soft click of a door closing. Daniel felt Helen's hand close tightly round his arm and before he could protest she dragged him back behind the bins. She pressed her other hand over his mouth and made urgent shushing gestures. This woman is weird and crazy, he thought, and was about to shake her off, but the expression in her eyes stopped him. It was a combination of pleading and genuine fear. So he crouched in the darkness over a puddle of foul-smelling ooze leaking from the waste food bin, trying not to breathe and keeping both arms around Chet in an attempt to keep him still and quiet. Over the background rustle of wind in the trees Daniel's straining ears picked out the sound of footsteps and then the distant crump of a car door. He waited tensely for the engine to start, but instead came the crunch of footsteps again, louder as they approached. Something in the lightness of the tread made Daniel sure it was a woman. Helen gave him an agonised look and shrank a little further into the shadows. The footsteps were heading straight towards them.
Chet's ears began to lift and he put his head on one side as he always did when interested in something. Silently, frantically, Daniel stroked the fur at his neck and behind his ears, holding him tightly to mask the scent of the approaching stranger, and praying he wouldn't bark.
The footsteps stopped almost on top of them and there was a creak of resisting plastic as the rubber lid of a bin opened. Something light was dropped inside and then the lid fell back with a soft thud.
Grit crunched under the departing footsteps and Helen's grip on his arm relaxed. The car door opened and closed, and at last the engine began to rumble. Even so, neither of them spoke until the noise of the car had faded out, swallowed up in the dark distance.
“You good dog,” were Helen's first words, which almost made Daniel forgive her for being weird and crazy.
“What was that about?” he hissed. “Why are we hiding?”
But she had already jumped up and was rooting in the bin to find whatever had just been discarded. He found her ripping a chunk of card from the side of a stiff cardboard box. Satisfied, she pocketed the fragment, which was roughly the size of a biscuit and had some sort of mark which he couldn't clearly see, before throwing the rest of the box back in the rubbish.
“Sorry,” she said at last. “You must wonder what the hell's going on.”
“Just slightly.” He realised he was still whispering.
“The important thing is not to tell anyone,” she said. “I can trust you, can't I?”
“Depends,” said Daniel, with scrupulous honesty. Anyone â especially a really untrustworthy person â could say yes to a question like that. “But you can trust me not to tell anyone about tonight. Who am I going to tell, anyway? I hardly know anyone.”
“It's too late and cold to stand here talking about this now. Come to the music room after school on Monday and I'll explain everything. No â on second thoughts, better come to my house instead: Wren Cottage on the Filey road. But
you won't mention this to anyone.”
“You hadn't really lost your lesson notes, had you?” Daniel said. “That was bull, wasn't it?”
“Daniel,” she said, shaking her head apologetically, “I'm not even really a teacher.”