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Authors: Emma Carroll

In Darkling Wood (14 page)

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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TUESDAY 19 NOVEMBER

26

I think I saw fairies in the trees last night, yet this morning nothing’s changed. There’ve been no last-minute phone calls, no cancellations, no more fairy mischief. Today’s the day Darkling Wood gets cut down. All I can hope now is that Ella’s protest works.

I can’t face breakfast. There’s no sign of Nell anywhere. Or Dad. I get my school books and pull on my coat just like normal. Today, though, I’ll be heading down to Bexton village square to meet Ella, and the fact Dad’s car is still blocking the driveway makes this easier because Nell can’t give me a lift.

It’s then I hear voices outside the kitchen window. The first is Nell’s. ‘There’s no mistake, David. I need you to move your car. Mr Giles is coming this morning to start work on Darkling Wood. I’m having it cleared.’

‘Cleared?’

‘That’s right. It’s being cut down. The whole three acres.’

Silence.

Then Dad says something I can’t hear, so, opening the back door, I slip outside. They’ve moved round to the side of the house: I can’t see them, but there’s a crunching sound as someone paces up and down the gravel path.

Nell’s voice is raised. ‘This is my house and my decision.’

‘But there must be a preservation order on those trees! They’re hundreds of years old!’

‘No, David, there isn’t. I’m in the middle of nowhere out here. And they’re a risk to the house. The insurance company says so.’

‘Rubbish! I’ll check with the council myself.’

‘Go ahead,’ says Nell. ‘But you’re not using my phone.’

Dad spits out the words: ‘I can’t believe you’d do it without telling me!’

‘Tell you? Why would I tell you? We don’t speak any more, or have you conveniently forgotten that fact?’

‘Then what are we doing now?’

Silence again.

‘I just can’t believe you’d do this,’ repeats Dad.

‘The trees are going because their roots are threatening the house. If I don’t remove them the insurance company won’t cover me. Besides, the house is dark, the garden’s dark. Nothing grows down here. We get no sun. I’m sick of living in the shadows.’

‘But that wood … that’s my childhood … there, in Darkling Wood!’

Nell sighs heavily. ‘And what a childhood it was, eh? I should’ve had those trees down years ago. Then none of this would’ve happened.’

‘Those trees have been here longer than this house! They’re meant to be there! There’s magic in those woods!’ Dad yells. ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve EVER heard!’

‘No, David, the stupidest thing was to take something that wasn’t yours!’ Nell shouts back.

Borage presses against my leg. He doesn’t like shouting. Nor do I. It takes me right back to Mum and Dad and how even with my fingers in my ears I still heard them.

‘How can you say that, after what
you
did?’ Dad cries.

‘Oh, don’t be childish, David.’

I don’t think this is about the trees any more. I creep right up to the corner of the house and peer round. Borage comes too. Dad and Nell are only a few feet away now.

‘You did it without asking anyone,’ Dad says.

‘It was done to help another family,’ Nell says. ‘I can’t believe you don’t realise that, especially now, with Theo.’

I catch my breath. Nell – who never talks about her grandson – has mentioned Theo.

‘But it wasn’t Jacob’s choice, it was yours!’ says Dad.

They’re going too fast. I don’t know anyone called Jacob.

‘Yes,’ Nell says. ‘It was my choice. When your son recovers, maybe you’ll understand.’

‘What if he doesn’t?’

I don’t mean to sob, but it comes out too loud. Nell and Dad both spin round. Borage leaps out from our hiding place, tail wagging.

‘I’ve spoken to you before about prying,’ Nell says, and she’s not talking to the dog.

I don’t move.

‘What are you arguing about? Who’s Jacob?’ I look from her to Dad and back again.

Dad groans.

Very firmly, Nell takes my arm and pushes me towards the house. ‘Get to school, young lady, or I’ll drag you there myself!’

I leave without another word, hot and churned up, and more confused than ever. Flo was right: there is a link between Nell and Dad’s falling out and the woods. Though she’s never mentioned a person called Jacob.

By the time I reach the village square, the church clock is showing half past eight. I’m late. There’s no sign of Ella or anyone from school yet. I can’t have missed her: I walked the usual way through the woods, so I’d have passed her if she’d been there.

I wait a bit longer. By 8.50 a.m. I’m close to tears. She’s not coming. No one is. So much for Ella’s smart badges and her big plans to make a nuisance. I feel stupid for thinking any of it would work. So when the bus for town pulls up, I get on and head for school. There’s nothing more I can do.

*

By the time I reach Ferndean High, I’ve missed the first lesson entirely. The second lesson is History. Ella’s not here.

‘Where’s Ella?’ I whisper to Max.

‘Ill, maybe?’ he says. But I don’t think either of us believes it.

It’s obvious where she is. Somehow I missed her in Bexton this morning, and now I’m stuck here in class and she’s at Darkling Wood saving the trees. I cuss myself for getting on that stupid school bus. Why didn’t I just wait a bit longer? Why didn’t I go back to the wood?

‘Everything okay, Alice?’ Mrs Copeland asks as she leans in to check my homework.

‘Yes, miss,’ I say, but I’m fidgety as anything.

‘Why don’t you take off your coat?’ she says.

Though I do as she says, I really can’t sit still. Stupid,
stupid
me.

Mrs Copeland skims my book. ‘Did you find someone to do your project on? Can I see your notes?’

‘Ummm … I think they’re here,’ I say, turning pages and pretending to look.

There is no history homework. Mrs Copeland knows it and so do I. My face is burning. I’m such a rubbish liar.

Someone on the back row mutters, ‘Detention,’ under their breath. Mrs Copeland does her teacher glare; it goes quiet again.

‘Let’s talk after class,’ she says to me, and her look tells me she’s spoken to Mr Jennings. She knows the score.

Max lends me a pen and I write the date and learning objective from the board. The lesson starts, but I don’t listen to a word of it. I can’t stop picturing Nell’s trees toppling to the ground. It makes my head hurt.

Then there’s a knock at the door and Mr Jennings comes in. Automatically people smooth their shirts down and tighten their ties, but he’s not here to check our uniform. He goes straight to Mrs Copeland. Dipping their heads, they talk quietly in that way teachers do, and I wonder if she’s telling him about my homework. But then Mrs Copeland looks at me, and her expression isn’t angry; it’s soft and kind. My legs turn instantly to water.

This isn’t about homework. Something’s happened to Theo.

I feel my whole body go cold.

‘Come with me please, Alice,’ Mr Jennings says. His eyes flick left and right. ‘Bring your things, and a friend if you like.’

Suddenly I don’t want to leave the room. I want the lesson to keep going as if nothing’s wrong. I’d rather be stuck here forever.

Max is already on his feet. He helps me stand up.

‘Come on, Alice,’ he says, tucking his arm through mine.

We follow Mr Jennings back to his office. By the time we get there, my teeth are chattering. Mr Jennings shuts the door and offers Max and me seats, then perches on the edge of his desk.

‘We’ve had a call from your mother,’ Mr Jennings says. ‘She tried to contact your grandmother first but couldn’t get a reply. I’m afraid things aren’t too good at the hospital. Your brother’s condition has deteriorated.’

His voice sounds distant. Like he’s talking to another person in another room. My heart starts to beat very fast. Mr Jennings offers me a tissue; I take it for something to do with my hands.

‘You’ll probably want to go home,’ Mr Jennings says. ‘We’ll get someone to collect you, shall we?’

‘Who?’ I say. ‘My dad’s waiting for the garage to fix his car. It’s blocking the driveway. No one can get in or out.’

‘My dad could pick you up and take you home,’ says Max. ‘He’s working at Darkling Wood today. I’ll try his mobile.’


Your
dad?’

‘Sure, if it’ll help.’

I picture the man in the luminous orange coat who was there making notes that day Flo and I hid from Nell. I stare at Max. ‘So … wait … your dad’s the tree surgeon?’

‘Yup.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

Max shrugs a shoulder. ‘I thought … I dunno … it might complicate things.’

I grit my teeth. Right now I’d like to shake him, but before I can stop myself, tears roll down my face. Everything is jumbled up. It shouldn’t be happening like this.

I did what Flo wanted me to. I believed in fairies – I mean, I must have, because those green shapes in the trees last night were fairies, I’m sure of it. She said if I believed it would make their magic stronger. She said they could save the wood.

If the wood was saved there’d be no more bad luck. No more fairy tricks like fences being taken apart or cars breaking down. No more talk of revenge. That’s what I believed.

But it’s like we’ve skipped a stage. Things have gone too fast. We’re already at the terrible part: cut down the wood, Flo said, and the fairies won’t just work magic any more, they’ll be out for revenge.

And now it’s happening. This is the worst, most awful luck. It’s the thing I’ve feared more than anything. Theo is getting sicker. But it’s not meant to be like this.

I breathe in. Breathe out.

There must still be something we can do.

Mr Giles’s jeep smells of petrol. He drives faster than Nell, taking corners like a rally driver. By the time we reach the top of the track, I feel sick. But amazingly we’ve made it home in less than twenty minutes.

‘Nearly there,’ he says. ‘Hold on tight.’

Wheels spinning, he zooms down the last bit of track. It’s the steepest part. My stomach feels like it’s up near my ears. I grip the dashboard and squeeze my eyes shut. We lurch left, then right. The whole jeep judders. As we take the last bend, Mr Giles slams on the brakes.

‘What the …?’

My eyes fly open. I brace myself. We stop just in time. Parked on the track is an old horsebox. Another few feet and we’d have gone into the back of it. Mr Giles scratches his head. Beeps his horn. Neither makes anything happen.

We’re stuck.

‘Where’s that come from?’ says Mr Giles.

‘I don’t know.’

The lane is blocked. Which means no one, not even a tree surgeon, can reach the house. And with no tree surgeon, no trees will be cut down. Darkling Wood stays.

This is the fairies’ work. It has to be.

It’s hard to think straight when my mind’s so full of Theo. Yet I get the tingly feeling that something magical is happening.

‘I’ll drop you here, is that all right?’ Mr Giles says.

‘You’re not starting on the trees today?’ I ask, just to be sure.

Mr Giles shakes his head. ‘Not when I can’t even get near the place. I’ve plenty more work to keep me busy today.’

Once I’m out of the jeep, I feel strange and light-headed. This is it. This is what we wanted. What the fairies wanted. Darkling Wood is saved – at least for today. The magic was strong enough after all.

Squeezing past the horsebox, I recognise the little curtains at the windows. It’s where Ella lives. My heart does a skip. The others from school might’ve chickened out, but not Ella. She kept her word. And she’s got her mum and dad involved too.

Wow, Ella, I think. Just WOW!

Perhaps the fairies played a part in that too, I don’t know. It makes me want to burst into tears again.

Then, up ahead, I see Nell. She’s talking to Ella. Behind them, just inside the gate, is Dad’s car. It hasn’t moved.

It can’t move. Not until the garage mechanic fixes it.

I miss a breath.

Oh no. This isn’t good. We need the car to get to Theo. We have to be able to get out of here. To drive to London. The protest has to move.

I run.

Ella spots me first.

‘Hey!’ she says. ‘You made it! What d’you think? Reckon any tree surgeons can get through?’

From this angle it’s even more obvious. The horsebox completely fills the track. It’s not parked, it’s
wedged
between the hedges. It’s not going anywhere.

Nell turns to me. ‘You’ve got some explaining to do, my girl! You knew about this, didn’t you?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘What does
that
mean? And why aren’t you at school?’

‘It’s Theo,’ I say. ‘Mum phoned the school. He’s worse.’

Nell’s hand goes to her mouth. She looks smaller, like the fight’s suddenly gone out of her. I turn to Ella.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘But we have to get out. Or at least get to the garage.’

Ella looks shocked too. ‘I’ll speak to my dad.’

She disappears inside the horsebox just as a man in a white van pulls up behind. ‘Get a shift on, will you?’ he shouts out of his window. ‘I’m here to fix a car.’

I look for Nell, but she’s gone. Moments later, she reappears at the side of the house with Dad. They go to the front door and she lets him inside, then she comes back to me.

‘He’s just using the phone to call the hospital,’ she says, seeing the question on my face.

I don’t really care about their stupid argument, not now.

‘The garage man’s here,’ I say.

‘And about time!’

Squaring her shoulders, she’s big again. She strides up to the horsebox and bangs on the side door with her fist.

‘It’s no use hiding in there!’ she says.

Almost straight away, the door opens and Ella comes out with both her parents. Her dad looks taller
today, more serious. Borage stands like a barrier in front of Nell.

‘With or without a preservation order, it’s still murder to cut down those trees,’ says Ella’s dad, folding his arms. ‘We’re not moving until we’ve talked some sense into you.’

I glance across at Nell. Straight-backed, grey-eyed, she stares back at him.

‘Save your hippy nonsense for those who’ll listen,’ she says.

‘We knew the wood was coming down today.’ Ella’s mum jabs a finger at Nell. ‘And it’s time
you
listened, lady.’

‘How news travels,’ Nell mutters, and glares at me. I look away. I wish Dad would hurry up on the phone.

‘Those woods are famous round here, Mrs Campbell,’ says Ella’s mum. ‘And not just because of you. The fairies live there, and have done for centuries.’

I look back at Nell.

She does a cough. A half-laugh. ‘My dear, that’s rubbish.
Utter
rubbish.’

Ella’s mother smiles. ‘There’s stories about Darkling Wood that could turn your blood,’ she says. ‘If you cut down those trees, the fairies’ll be after you with
their bad magic. And who’d want to bring that on themselves, eh?’

Not me
, I think, a shiver going right down my backbone.

Nell holds up her hand. ‘That’s enough! Now will you move?’

Ella’s dad doesn’t shift.

Nor does Nell, though her voice gets louder. ‘That car’s needed,’ she says, pointing to Dad’s. ‘Now move!’

Arms folded, Ella’s parents lean against the horsebox. They’re going nowhere. Ella looks uncomfortable now, and further up the track the garage man presses his horn. Still no one moves. At this rate we’ll be here tomorrow.

‘Please,’ I say, over Nell’s shoulder. ‘My brother’s sick and …’

‘Don’t tell these
people
our business!’ Nell cries.

They’re not just ‘people’. They’re Ella’s mum and dad here to save the wood. But now things have changed and we need to get to the hospital. I just wish everyone would hurry up. Even Dad’s phone call is taking forever.

‘I’m calling the police,’ says Nell. ‘They’ll get this track cleared in no time.’

I look at her in disbelief.

‘Nell, just explain why we need to get out!’ I cry.

Ella tugs her mum’s sleeve. She knows about Theo from school – or bits of it. But Nell’s glare is now fixed on the Travellers. She’s locked into battle and she can’t back down. It’s just how she is with Dad.

‘Please,’ I say to Ella and her parents. ‘We need you to move. My brother’s very sick and we have to get to London to the hospital. It’s an emergency.’

Ella’s parents stop leaning against the horsebox and straighten up.

‘My dad’s car needs fixing first and we’re in a hurry, so, please, could you move? The tree surgeon’s already gone. He won’t be back today.’

‘All right,’ says Ella’s dad. ‘We’ll let the garage man through.’

‘Thanks,’ I say.

‘Though I’m warning you,’ he says to Nell. ‘This isn’t over. We’ll be back, and with more people next time.’

*

Within half an hour Dad’s car is fixed. But the news from the hospital is bad. Theo is very poorly, and though they’re trying different drugs, the next few hours will be critical.

We saved Darkling Wood, I tell myself, so now the fairies are happy maybe our luck will change. I don’t want to think about tomorrow, when Mr Giles will be back. It’s this moment I need to focus on. My little brother needs every single bit of good luck there is – and he needs it today, not tomorrow.

Dad gets in the car and starts it up. Going round to the other side, I open the passenger door.

‘What are you doing?’ he says, as I slide into my seat.

‘Coming with you.’

‘No you’re not.’

‘Oh yes I am.’

Dad turns the car engine off. He looks exhausted.

‘Alice, Theo’s in intensive care. It’s just me who needs to go.’

‘Mum called
me
at school. She must want
me
to come too.’

Dad sighs heavily. ‘No, Alice. She called the school because she couldn’t get hold of me or Nell. This is “parents only” stuff for now.’

‘Parents only? What does
that
mean? And when did you start caring?’

‘Look, I need to go,’ he says. ‘We’ll talk later, okay?’

Then I notice his hands. They’re trembling really badly. His voice sounds shaky too.

‘You’ve done so much for your brother. You should be proud,’ Dad says. ‘But it’s okay to be scared. And you and I, we’re terrified, aren’t we?’

I swallow and nod.

‘Only one of us needs to face that hospital, Alice. And it’s time I stopped being scared and started being more of a dad.’

There’s plenty I want to say to him. But I can’t argue, because he’s right.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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