Authors: Emma Carroll
‘I don’t believe I’m doing very well, am I?’ Nell says at breakfast.
I look up from my toast. This isn’t the telling-off I was expecting.
‘First you roam the countryside at night, then you sneak off to London without a word to anyone. You’ve made it clear you’re not happy here,’ she says.
‘Are you? When your school phoned yesterday to tell me you were absent, I spoke to your Head of Year, a Mr …’
‘Jennings,’ I say, feeling my stomach start to knot.
‘Yes, Mr Jennings. It was rather awkward, Alice. He said he wasn’t sure you’d settled in very well. And that you’d not done your maths or French homework.’
‘Only once! I
do homework – well, normally.’ I stare miserably at my plate. I don’t know what normal is any more.
‘And,’ Nell continues, ‘he thought there’d been an issue between you and another girl.’
‘Oh. That.’ What she means is Ella. And I’m not sure what to say, especially as the ‘issue’ she’s talking about is Darkling Wood.
‘Are you not happy at school? Is that it?’ asks Nell.
‘School’s all right. But I do miss my best friend from home, Lexie.’
‘Is there no one else to be friends with?’
‘Well,’ I say, thinking of Max. ‘There are some nice people.’
‘And what’s the problem with homework?’
I shrug. ‘I didn’t feel like doing it.’
‘Then that’s not good enough,’ says Nell, quite sharply. ‘Mr Jennings mentioned your attitude. He’s sure it’s due to the stress you’re under, but you’d still better watch yourself, young lady.’
My shoulders tense up. Now we’re getting to the telling-off part.
‘Perhaps I should call your mother and tell her it’s not working out for you here,’ Nell says.
‘Honestly, I’m okay,’ I say quickly.
What I mean is the alternative is worse. I can’t go home or to Lexie’s house. Which leaves Dad. No way am I going to stay with him and Lara, not even if he invites me. Which he hasn’t.
‘I’m not cut out for teenagers,’ says Nell. She’s got that far-off look like she gets when she talks about the trees. ‘I didn’t do so well with my own two.’
At least I think that’s what she says, but then the telephone starts ringing. We both rush for it. Nell gets there first.
‘Bexton 66475?’ she says.
I hover, ready to grab the phone if it’s Mum.
‘I’m aware it’s raining, Mr Giles,’ Nell says, tight-lipped. ‘I’m also
aware that you should have been here half an hour ago.’
I go back to my breakfast, glad the call isn’t for me after all. My head’s still full of flashing red lights and the panic in Mum’s face, and I’m struggling to unthink it. I’ve certainly had my fill of hospitals for a while. I wonder if Dad’s gone back to London today. Or whether he’s had his fill too.
Out in the hallway Nell’s voice gets louder. ‘So you won’t be here on Monday either?’ She sighs angrily. ‘Tuesday, then?’
As I listen, my stomach starts to sink because I’ve guessed Mr Giles must be the tree surgeon.
‘I’ll expect you Tuesday morning, eight o’clock sharp. Are we clear, Mr Giles?’
Nell slams the phone down and storms back into the kitchen. Borage hides under the table, putting his chin on my knee.
‘This is ridiculous,’ she says, sloshing water into the kettle. ‘If that man doesn’t turn up on Tuesday, I’ll do the job myself.’
‘Cut down the trees, you mean?’ I say.
‘Of course I mean cutting down the trees!’ she snaps.
So it’s finally happening. A man is coming to cut down Darkling Wood. I feel suddenly, painfully sad – and something else too, a sort of dread deep inside me.
‘Look at us!’ Nell gestures at the ceiling lights, which as usual are on. ‘We’re living in semi-darkness here! We might as well exist in a cave!’
‘But it’s winter,’ I say. ‘At home we’ve had our lights on a lot too.’
She’s not listening. ‘And that’s without considering the damage those roots are doing to this house. I spoke to the insurance company yesterday; they won’t even
insure me any more. So if a tree falls on the house or if my walls start to crack from subsidence, there’s no back-up, no money to cover the costs.’
‘Don’t you see? Those woods have made this house worthless.’ She’s turned her back on me to stare out of the window. Her shoulders are trembling. But I don’t think she’s crying …
or is she?
‘They’ve got to go.’ Her voice is matter-of-fact. ‘I don’t care if I have to use my bare hands. I want my house to be safe and light.’
She turns round. There aren’t any tears. Her face is bone dry.
‘Those trees are coming down. And that’s final.’
The kettle boils. Nell makes her coffee, scraping her spoon against the cup. It sets my teeth on edge.
‘That Traveller girl you saw the other day in the woods.’
I put down my toast.
‘You did tell her to clear off, didn’t you?’
‘Um … sort of …’
‘Well, she’d better not be anywhere near the place when Mr Giles comes. I mean it – there’ll be falling trees. It’ll be dangerous.’
Under the table, I cross my fingers. ‘If I see her, I’ll tell her. She might still be around, climbing the trees or something.’
‘She’d better not be climbing my trees AT ALL!’ cries Nell, slamming down her cup with such force it makes me jump. ‘She’ll get herself killed!’
Nell’s wrong. There’s no way Flo would fall – it’s almost like she was born to climb trees. But I can’t say this, not without admitting I’m friends with the girl who’s trespassing in her woods.
Nell takes a deep breath. ‘The sooner the wood goes, the better.’
Yet I can’t imagine this place without the trees all around it. I can’t picture Flo anywhere else either. And I think of just how quiet it feels out there in the woods. Fairies or not, it’s a special place.
‘Can’t Mr Giles just … I dunno … trim the branches back?’ I say.
Nell glares at me. ‘
? He’s a tree surgeon, not a hairdresser! Good grief, child, you can’t trim roots!’
‘I just don’t see why you have to cut down the whole wood, that’s all,’ I say.
Nell blinks slowly. She takes a slow breath like she’s trying to stay calm. It’s obvious what she thinks of my suggestion.
‘Perhaps I will speak to your mother,’ she says. ‘See if we can get someone to collect you.’
My stomach plummets. ‘I’m not going to Dad’s. So don’t ask him.’
‘There must be someone else who’ll have you.’
‘There isn’t. You’re it.’
We stare at each other for a very long moment.
‘We’ll leave it a few days then,’ she says. ‘But today, young lady, you’re grounded.’
‘What?!’ I sit bolt upright. ‘All day?’
‘Absolutely. No running off anywhere. I want you here where I can keep an eye on you.’
‘But I have to …’ I stop.
‘Yes?’ says Nell, interested. ‘What do you have to do, Alice? Because if there’s a problem I will call your mother.’
I pick up my toast again. ‘Forget it. It’s nothing.’
All day, Nell works outside taking down the fence that separates the woods from the garden. And I sit at the kitchen table, trying to read or do school stuff. But really I’m thinking about Flo. Yesterday proved I can’t always help Theo or Mum, but perhaps there’s
something we can do about Darkling Wood. Not the fairies business, I mean something real and practical. Sensible. There must be another way to make the trees safe without cutting everything down.
There’s another thing too, niggling in the background like toothache. Normally I’m not one for superstitions, but I can’t shake off what Flo said about revenge.
Saturday 16th November
The War Office might believe you are ‘missing, believed killed’ but I believe you’re on your way home. After all, no one’s yet proved that you’re not.
Papa also thinks you’re still alive. At breakfast, he said a dead person’s spirit often returns to a place they loved (our beech tree, perhaps?) but as he’d seen no sign of yours you must still be alive. I confess I like the idea, though I’d rather you weren’t dead at all. But Mama said she found our talk most unhelpful. She’s been busy writing to your regiment for information, so now there’s even less paper to use.
On the subject of letters, I set out directly after breakfast to post yours. Well, you know how news travels in Bexton. Standing in the post office queue, I lost count of the glances that out of pity couldn’t meet mine. At least when I reached Mr Crabtree at the counter, I was a tiny bit prepared. As I passed him your letter, his eyebrows went skywards and his hand hovered over the stamps. I held my breath. You see, Alfred, suddenly that letter meant everything. I was desperate for him to send it, just like he’d sent my other letters. I couldn’t bear to see his hesitation or the doubt on his face. It felt like
the difference between believing and giving up. So when Mr Crabtree finally stamped the envelope, I’m afraid I did sob with relief.
As you know, I’m not one for tears in public, so I was very glad to leave the village behind me. Marching straight up the hill, I didn’t stop until I reached the woods. Oh, Alfred! What a sight awaited me! Hovering beneath our tree like a dragonfly was one of the tiny creatures. As I approached, she flew towards me, coming so close I saw the startling blue of her eyes. Then she touched my tear-stained face – first the left cheek, then the right – before retreating back under the tree. From there she carried on watching me. And when I touched my own cheek, the tears had all dried. I felt calmer too, as if a knot inside me had worked loose.
That peace didn’t last.
Hurling down the path came the black-and-white dog from the farm. Not far behind was Mr Glossop with his gun under his arm. Two dead rabbits hung from his shoulder. Seeing me, he whistled the dog to his side.
My first thought was for the creature under our tree. You know what Mr Glossop’s like – he’s hardly civil to people, never mind something as unusual as this. He’d want to hunt it down. Kill it. Show it to the men in the pub. So, politely but firmly, I asked Mr Glossop to turn back.
He didn’t take kindly to getting orders from a girl – in fact
he went very red in the face. It took all my courage not to step aside. But he barged past me anyway, and in his haste walked straight into a low-hanging branch. The force of it felled him. He landed with a thump, dropping his gun, then he lay on the ground clutching his forehead. It was terribly hard not to laugh, for he did look jolly funny.
I know I should’ve offered my help, but the fact was I couldn’t get near him for his dog snarling and snapping. Anyway, Mr Glossop was soon on his feet again. Pulling his cap down to hide his face, he stormed off with his gun through the undergrowth.
By now, the little green creature had vanished. There was something odd about that tree branch too. It didn’t look that low. It wasn’t even really near the path. So how Mr Glossop came to walk right into it, I don’t know. It was as if the wood – or something in it – had played a trick on him.
Back at home, Papa was on the lawn with his camera. I went over to tell him about Mr Glossop, but before I had a chance even to speak Papa made me stand very still. My expression was just marvellous, he said, and he wanted to take my picture. Don’t laugh!
Later Papa showed me the finished photograph and he had captured me well, right down to the tangles in my hair. And yet, I didn’t look like a person who’d just caught a poacher. I looked like a girl who’d seen magic.
So I tried to tell Papa what I’d seen today. I’d met a creature with wings, I said, and somehow it’d lifted my sorry spirits. He listened until I’d finished, then he patted my hand and said how lovely that I was a dreamer just like him.
Yet it happened, Alfred, and I know you believe me. The proof is that photograph; it’s there in my face.
Your devoted sister.
SUNDAY 17 NOVEMBER
Something’s seriously up with Nell this morning. She’s storming about the place before it’s even light. I pull the covers over my head but when I hear her talking on the phone I immediately think it’s to Mum. Quickly putting on jeans and a jumper, I go downstairs. Nell’s in the hallway, phone tucked under her chin.
‘Yes, every single blasted one,’ she’s saying. ‘Right back in their original places. Can you believe it, Mr Giles, they’ve even nailed the posts back together!’
Nell notices me hovering. She gestures towards the kitchen like there’s something she wants me to see. I don’t know what she’s on about: everything looks normal in here. The table’s covered in papers and coffee cups. And Borage, the great lazy lump, is still in his bed by the Aga.
‘What’s going on, boy?’ I say, crouching down to rub his ears.
He thumps his tail.
Not much, by the looks of it.
Taking the kettle to the sink to fill it, I gaze blearily out of the window. Today I need to find Flo. There must be something we can do to save the woods – something that doesn’t involve fairies.
‘Seen it, have you?’ says Nell, coming into the kitchen.
She joins me at the window. ‘That fence I took down yesterday – d’you see where it is now?’
Wiping off the condensation, I peer through the glass. I’m still not sure what she’s on about. The fence that separates the garden from the wood looks like it always does – wooden posts, wooden rails.
Except … hang on … yesterday Nell took the fence down. I watched from the window and saw the posts she’d dug up lying in a big heap. It took her ages. Now they’re all back in the ground.
‘Who did it?’ I ask.
‘I’ve no idea,’ says Nell. ‘Someone’s playing tricks on me.’
My heart starts to thump.
Flo said this would happen, didn’t she? She said
there’d be more hold-ups, more delays. And someone or
has messed with Nell’s fence, all right. It’ll take her ages to dig those posts up again.
I feel a chill creeping over me. Flo called them
. She said they were a warning to Nell not to cut down Darkling Wood. If she ignores them and goes ahead, the fairies will take revenge, and I’ve a nasty suspicion who their target will be.
‘I’m not still grounded, am I?’ I say to Nell.
‘What?’ Nell looks surprised. Her mind’s clearly on other things. ‘No.’
Grabbing my coat, I race out of the door. I need to find Flo. Fast.
I head straight to the woods. The birds are quiet, as if they know something’s wrong. Even the trees look grim. It’s hard not to think of what they’ll look like next week, hacked to pieces on the ground. There’s no sign of Flo in the usual places, not even a footprint. I just hope she’s not still cross with me over last time, and that business with the note I found in the tree.
At the edge of the wood, I turn left towards Glossop’s Farm, where the Travellers are camped. If Flo won’t come to me, I’ll have to go to her. It’s a steep climb up the hill. At the very top the ground falls away
towards a line of trees. Stopping to catch my breath, I see the crooked chimney of a house, a rooftop with tiles missing and rows of smashed-in windows. So this is Glossop’s Farm. Someone must’ve lived here once; now, though, it’s bleak and empty. Perhaps the building wasn’t safe to live in. Perhaps there were problems with tree roots here too.
A dog barks nearby. The sound’s coming from some parked-up vehicles just beyond the farmhouse. There’s an old horsebox done out for living in, buses, brightly coloured trucks, a couple of caravans. If this is the Travellers’ camp, then Flo must be down there too.
I get as far as the line of trees before something knocks me flying. I fall hard on my bum. Next thing, I’m pinned to the ground by a massive black dog.
‘Off, Raven!’ someone shouts. ‘Get off!’
A hand grabs the animal and yanks it away. Shakily, I sit up. Two feet wrapped in carrier bags appear next to me.
‘You all right, chick?’ says a woman.
I try out my legs and arms. I don’t seem to be bleeding.
‘I think so,’ I say.
‘Can you stand up?’ says the woman.
She’s got a bit of rope round the dog now. He’s big
and squat with a massive head. And he’s still a bit too interested in me.
‘Keep the dog back,’ I say.
I’m not scared of dogs but this monster makes me very nervous. No wonder Flo doesn’t like them. Slowly, I get up.
‘What you wanting here, anyway?’ says the woman, now she sees I’m not bleeding to death.
‘I’m looking for a girl,’ I say.
‘Oh aye. A school friend, are you? What’s your name?’
‘Alice,’ I say.
‘You’re the new student, aren’t you?’ the woman says, folding her arms. ‘Aye, she’s mentioned you.’
‘Has she?’ I try to be polite but all the time I’m glancing over her shoulder. ‘Could you tell Flo that I’m here, please? I really need to see her.’
The woman hasn’t moved. She’s not exactly friendly, not like my mum, who insists on hugging all my friends. And I’m getting the sense now that maybe she doesn’t know who I’m talking about.
‘Yes, Flo – short for Florence. Nell … I mean my grandmother … said Flo lived here at the Travellers’ camp.’
The woman catches this name too. ‘Nell? Nell Campbell? That crazy old bint who owns Darkling Wood?’
I shuffle my feet. It’s like being at the village shop again.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And that’s why I need to see Flo.’
The woman’s face drops. ‘Your grandma hasn’t got the go-ahead to cut the wood down, has she? The council haven’t said yes?’
‘They don’t need to, apparently. The work starts on Tuesday.’
‘Flaming heck! It’s criminal, that is, to cut down such an old bit of woodland! Those trees should be protected!’ the woman cries. ‘I can’t believe no one’s put a stop to it!’
According to Flo, the fairies are trying. Though I don’t say this.
‘So is she around?’ I ask again. ‘Nell said …’
‘Then your grandma’s got her facts wrong, hasn’t she?’ The woman’s voice has an edge to it now. ‘You won’t find any
here in our camp.’
The dog starts growling again. The woman steps nearer.
‘Look,’ I say, trying to sound braver than I feel. ‘I don’t want the wood cut down either.’
Then someone shouts, ‘Mum! Stop being so
The woman spins round. Two people step down from the horsebox and come towards us – a man, and a girl wearing the brightest striped tights I’ve ever seen. She looks like … no, wait … she
Ella from school. I’m completely thrown.
‘Oh.’ Ella stops when she sees me. ‘It’s you.’
‘Who’s this then, love?’ says the man, who I suppose is her dad.
‘Someone from school,’ says Ella.
I think of those posters she put up last week and feel my insides shrink.
‘Aha! Nice to meet you.’ Her dad sticks out a grubby hand.
Awkwardly, I shake it.
‘Here, Del,’ says the woman who must be Ella’s mum. ‘You know you’ve just shaken hands with Nell Campbell’s granddaughter, don’t you?’
The man looks at me, then at his hand, which he wipes on the back of his jeans.
‘You tell your grandmother we’re going to fight her,’ he says, not so friendly now. ‘Whenever she starts destroying that wood, we’ll be there. You tell her.’
‘It’s starting Tuesday,’ says the woman.
‘This Tuesday? In two days’ time? Hell’s bells!’
‘I don’t want it to happen either,’ I say. ‘I’m just trying to find my friend Flo so we can do something about it.’
The three of them look at me, stony-faced. It’s no good. They don’t believe me.
‘You’d better go,’ the woman says. ‘Your grandmother will be wondering where you are.’
I feel their eyes on me all the way back up the hill. What bothers me more, though, is that I still haven’t found Flo.