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Authors: Emma Carroll

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BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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Back inside the house, Nell’s waiting. I know I’m in trouble. Yet she doesn’t shout or yell or go all spiky. She simply gets up from the kitchen table and beckons me to follow.

‘I want to show you something – properly this time,’ she says.

Upstairs it seems darker than ever. We go to the end of the passage, then down the two steps that take us to the door behind the curtain. Unlocking the room, Nell flicks a switch on the wall. Light dazzles from a bare bulb strung with cobwebs. I’ve been bursting to search this place. Now, though, I hang back in the doorway as Nell pushes a cardboard box and some books to one side. She reaches underneath the table, groaning and twisting her arm until she’s got what she’s looking for.

‘This,’ she says, straightening up, ‘is what it’s all about.’

She’s holding the jar that I couldn’t reach the other day. Seeing it properly now, it’s actually a bit boring-looking. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

‘Your father took this without asking,’ Nell says. ‘That’s why we don’t speak any more.’

‘I don’t get it. I mean, if he took it, why’s it here and not with him?’

‘He took what was
inside
it – twenty-one years ago.’

I stare at the jar. It’s pottery with a metal lid and Nell holds it in front of her like a gift. As I go to take it, she whips it away like she can’t quite let it go after all.

‘What was inside?’ I’m guessing money or jewellery. It must have been something big for her and Dad to fall out like that.

‘Jacob,’ she says.

I dip my head. I don’t think I’ve heard her properly.


Jacob
?’

Nell tuts. ‘Your father hasn’t even told you that much, has he?’

Actually, neither of them would tell me anything when I asked this morning.

‘He’s your father’s younger brother,’ she says.

‘Dad hasn’t got a brother.’ I look at Nell. Those steely grey eyes. ‘Has he?’

‘He hasn’t now, no. Jacob died when he was eleven. Your father was seventeen at the time.’

‘But he can’t … I mean …’ I stop, mouth open in shock.

‘I’m sorry you’ve had to find out like this.’

My own dad never mentioned he had a
brother
. There’s so much of him I don’t know about. And now there’s another stranger in our family – Jacob – who, I’m finding out, was my uncle.

Nell tucks the jar under her arm. ‘Let’s see,’ she says, and pulls out a box from the piles of stuff on top of the table. ‘No, not that one.’ She gets another one, rummages through and pulls out a book that’s covered in dusty cardboard. It’s an old photograph album. I crane my neck for a look.

‘That’s Jacob,’ Nell says, pointing to a picture a couple of pages in. The photo is of a boy with thick blond hair, hanging upside down from a tree. He’s wearing a striped jumper that looks like it’s shrunk, and one of his front teeth is missing. It’s a sweet, happy photo that makes me smile and go watery-eyed at the same time.

Then it comes back to me, what she said in the kitchen that day when she wanted to send me to Dad’s:
I didn’t do so well with my own two
. She must’ve been thinking about Jacob.

‘How did Jacob die?’ I ask.

Nell takes a breath. ‘He was out in the woods climbing a tree with your father when he slipped. The fall broke his neck.’

I look at the picture again. It doesn’t seem so sweet now, just really sad. He’s the boy who never grew up to be someone’s dad, or to be my uncle, and Theo’s. And that tree that he’s hanging from – I wonder if that branch is part of Flo’s fairy door, or whether it’s just a trick of the light. Perhaps, like Dad, Jacob believed in fairies too.

‘Oh,’ I say, ‘oh.’ So this is why Nell didn’t want me to climb trees.

Tears fill my eyes then spill down my face. An even more terrible thought hits me: by saying Jacob
slipped
does she really mean something else, something ten times more awful?

‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’ I ask.

‘Yes, it was. I don’t blame your father, not for that. They’d climbed that tree hundreds of times before, but I should’ve been more aware of the dangers.’ She taps the photo. ‘Especially as neither of them had any fear.’

Like Flo, I think, who moves about the wood like a monkey and never ever looks like she’d fall. I can’t
take my eyes off that little jar. To think it’s all that’s left of a once living person, a person who had a name, a brother, a mother.

‘So what did Dad do that made you so angry?’ I ask.

With another deep breath, Nell straightens her back.

‘Without telling anyone, he took Jacob’s ashes. He went quite mad about it,’ she says. ‘To this day, he won’t tell me where they are.’

‘Wow!’ I say. ‘What a horrible thing to do!’

No wonder the two of them don’t speak any more. Suddenly I feel sorry for Nell.

‘I bet he scattered them in the woods – it makes sense he would’ve, doesn’t it?’

Nell looks rueful. ‘Yes, my dear, it would make sense. But all he’d say was that the fairies had taken Jacob.’

The fairies: I’d guessed as much.

‘How do you make sense of
that
?’ she asks.

I can’t. I don’t trust myself to say anything helpful. I could tell her Dad says there’s magic in the woods and he thinks I’ve got a gift for seeing it. She’d tut and roll her eyes, so I could explain that I
have
seen things: green things, golden things like specks of light that I think are fairies. And she’d laugh at me, and I’d
understand why. In our family everyone says Mum’s the dreamer while Dad and I are the practical ones. Suddenly it’s like everyone’s changed places.

‘Why did Dad do it?’ I ask, because people don’t just take another person’s ashes. There had to be a reason.

‘Ask your father,’ Nell says. ‘I’d be fascinated to hear how he justifies himself. Especially now.’

I don’t know what she means. I can’t ask Dad either because he’s on his way to London.

‘Can’t you just tell me?’ I ask.

‘And let him off the hook?’ said Nell. ‘Absolutely not.’

Darkling Cottage
Tuesday 19th November

 

Dearest Alfred,

Today Mama received a letter. It said a boy fitting your description was in a hospital in northern France. He is ‘badly injured’ with a wound to the head. More importantly, is he you?

It’s left me very shaken, and because of it Mama and Papa have had the biggest row. He even called her ‘Florrie’ instead of ‘Florence’, which he knows she hates. And Anna and Mrs Cotter are casting doubts over everything – not just about you but my photograph too. It’s as if we’re all pulling against each other, and I don’t like it at all.

Please don’t think me ungrateful: ‘injured’ is ten times better than ‘missing’. But I keep picturing the men here in Bexton, with their limps and scars and missing fingers. There’s one or two who have burns to the face and wear those ghastly tin masks. Then there are men like Papa whose injuries you can’t see. Please say you’re not like this.

Mama’s completely certain the boy in France is you. She called us all to the drawing room and read his description from the letter – blond hair, green eyes, old scar behind left ear – and I admit it does sound like you. Because of his injuries, the
boy doesn’t recall his name, but – and this part made my legs go weak – he keeps repeating the word ‘Bexton’.

I so wanted it to be you. But also I didn’t. Not if you couldn’t remember who you were. I want you back just the same as when you went away. Sorry if that sounds awfully selfish.

Mrs Cotter pointed out that Bexton might be a surname or a house, and Anna agreed, saying that she knew of a town up north with that name. I was almost relieved. Then I grew frightened because it felt as if we’d just found you only for you to slip away from us again. Mama thanked them both for their expert advice, and asked Papa for his view.

All this time he’d been sitting in his chair. I now saw why; his hands shook so much he’d tucked them deep into his armpits. It made me want to put a blanket round his shoulders.

Mama sank at his feet, begging him to believe that the boy was you. Papa said he didn’t know what to think. With so many boys lying injured in France, it wasn’t wise to get our hopes up. But we’d bring you home and nurse you here, Mama said. It could easily be sorted out. All she asked was that he should believe.

That word again!

Mama had few hard facts, only hope, of which she was full to the brim. It convinced me, Alfred. And it seemed to soften Papa, who eventually agreed she should go to France. It was the only way we’d know if the boy was
you. But again he warned her not to get her hopes up. In a very cool tone she said that when she brought you home, then he’d thank her for being hopeful. It struck me as a bit rich because she’d not believed in me and my picture, when clearly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did!

And, feeling brave, I said so.

While Mama glared Mrs Cotter chipped in helpfully, saying to her way of thinking, fairies were just a myth, like ghosts or dragons. Then Anna said people were getting very clever with cameras nowadays, and most pictures like mine were just trickery.

Trickery! Pah! How I wanted to pinch her!

Mama cleared her throat. Slowly, coolly she said I needed to realise it wasn’t normal to believe in fairies. At this Papa EXPLODED! I’ve never heard him rant so – about the war and young men dying for a cause they didn’t understand, let alone believe in, and how those who did come home were forgotten because nobody cared. Was it so mad, then, to believe in something good, to hope our sorry, awful world wasn’t all there was? Did normal even exist any more?

Mrs Cotter and Anna took their cue to leave the room. As Papa went on, I began to grasp it properly. For years we’ve lived and breathed this dreadful war. The fairies are proof that a better, kinder world still exists. If we believe hard enough then anything is possible – missing soldiers coming home,
ghosts, fairies. By the time Papa had finished, I think even Mama understood: we have to keep our hopes alive if we can.

I left the room unnoticed and went straight to the woods, hoping for fairies. There were rustlings a-plenty: mostly squirrels and blackbirds, plus the odd cackling jay. But there was no sign of any fairies, nor the sense that they were near. Even Mr Glossop’s dog had stayed away today, so I couldn’t blame their absence on him. The wood seemed full of midwinter gloom. Hard to believe that just days ago I’d felt magic here, yet that feeling now seemed a thousand miles away. Everything was so bleak and chill, as if the fairies were keeping away on purpose.

That thought stayed with me. At dinner, I couldn’t eat pudding, and it was lemon curd tart. I think Mrs Cotter made it especially to say sorry for earlier, but I’d rather she and Anna had believed me in the first place, or at least not made me feel like a cheat.

Mama is to go to France very soon. She’s ever hopeful that the injured boy is you. I know it shouldn’t but it scares me a little too, Alfred. What if these things turn out not to be the truth we want? What do we hope for then?

I’m sorry. This would all be so much simpler if you were here.

Do hurry home,

Yours ever

WEDNESDAY 20 NOVEMBER
(
MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
)

29

All evening there’s no news from the hospital. Just before bedtime I call Mum but her phone’s switched off, and I’ve not memorised Dad’s number. I try Cheetah Ward too, but it goes straight to the answerphone. Eventually Nell and I go to bed, though it’s impossible to sleep.

By two o’clock in the morning I’ve given up completely, and sit by the window with the curtains pulled back. It’s a beautiful night. There’s a full moon, which makes the sky look almost blue. I open the window and breathe in cold air until my lungs ache. All around the house, trees spread their shadows across the lawn,
for the last time
, I think, because Mr Giles will be back tomorrow. I feel it like proper pain. We
didn’t really save the woods today, did we? We just bought ourselves a bit of time.

Then, from the woods, comes the sound of an owl. No. Not an owl, because owls don’t call like that. Grabbing my jacket and bobble hat, I’m downstairs and out the back door in a flash.

*

Flo’s where she always is. I’m so glad I want to throw my arms right around her, but I can’t because she’s halfway up the beech tree, ten or more feet higher than the fairy door.

‘Hey, Flo! I need to talk to you. Can you come down?’

‘Why don’t you come up?’

‘I’m not getting up there!’

‘What are you scared of?’

‘Nothing. It’s just …’

‘Just what?’

I’m thinking of Jacob and his fall from a tree –
this
tree, maybe. Hands on hips, I size up the trunk. It looks pretty dangerous to me.

‘How safe is it? I mean … where do I put my feet?’

Flo laughs. ‘You’ve never climbed a tree before?’

‘No,’ I say, irritated. It’s hardly a crime. At home there aren’t just
trees
all over the place, not like here.

‘Look for places to put your feet,’ Flo says. ‘Then heave yourself up. Grip with your legs and hands. Once you get to the first big branch you’ll be fine.’

But I can’t see anything to get a hold of.

‘Can’t you come down?’

Flo sighs. ‘Will you stop being so flipping sensible for a moment and
try
?’

‘I … I … can’t do it.’

‘You’re a child, Alice, not a boring adult,’ Flo says sternly. ‘So stop behaving like one.’

‘That’s not fair!’ I say.

I’m getting a bit tired of being bossed about by Flo.
Believe in fairies, Alice, talk about your dad, Alice.
Yet I can’t remember the last time I did something just for the fun of it.

I stare at the trunk again. Maybe I do want to climb it, after all. I mean, it couldn’t hurt. I pull my hat down firmly over my ears.

‘Get ready, Flo. I’m coming up.’

On the side of the tree is a strong-looking knot in the bark. With my foot resting on it, I reach up to the first branch. It’s harder than it looks. The moonlight helps but it throws shadows too. I’m not always certain
what’s solid and what’s thin air. Somehow I haul myself up. My arm muscles burn. Then finally I’m lying across the branch.

The next bit’s easier. The branches are closer together, which means I can reach up and push down at the same time. It kills my arms still. But at least I’m moving.

‘Well done!’ Flo says. ‘You’re getting the hang of it now.’

I can’t help grinning. It feels good up here, especially if I don’t look down.

‘Keep going!’ she says.

As I reach up, a pigeon bursts from the branch above. Its wings flap about my head.

‘Arrgghh!’

I try to shield myself, but I need both hands to hold on. My foot slips and I slam against the trunk. Flo laughs her head off.

‘It’s not funny!’

‘Oh, Alice, you should see yourself!’ she says.

I wait for my heartbeat to slow down. Gripping tightly, I heave myself up. The branch creaks; it holds me though. I ease myself into a crouch, then a standing position. The next branch is nearer. I get onto it like I’m climbing a gate. Flo’s boots are just above me now.

One last push.

As I reach up, Flo leans down and grabs a handful of my coat. Now it’s easy. Swinging round, I land with a bump beside her.

‘Fancy seeing you here,’ Flo says, grinning.

Pushing the hair off my face, I grin back. ‘Nice place you’ve got.’

Once I’ve wedged myself against the branch, it feels safer. If I don’t look down, I’ll be fine.

‘Darkling Wood lives to see another day,’ I say, though I’m not entirely sure who’s behind it all. I’m more worried about what’ll happen in the morning.

‘Yes, I saw,’ says Flo.

‘Where were you? I thought you’d be with the Travellers.’

‘No,’ she says. ‘I was here in the woods. Tell me, who was that man in the blue jacket?’

‘My dad.’


Your father?
I thought he never …’

‘He came yesterday evening to take me back to his house, then his car broke down. And you’ll never guess, but I found out he had a brother called Jacob who died and …’

Flo’s eyes go like saucers.

‘What?’ I ask.

She shakes her head. ‘Keep going.’

‘Well, turns out he stole his brother’s ashes and …’ I stop. Flo’s still staring at me. ‘What
is
it? Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘It’s working,’ she says. ‘The fairies’ tricks really are working – in ways I’d never thought possible. How incredibly clever they are!’

The thought had crossed my mind, too.

‘Don’t you see, Alice? Your father’s car wouldn’t start, which just so happened to keep him at his mother’s house, the person he’s not spoken to for years. It meant they were forced to talk …’

‘Shout, more like,’ I butt in.

‘At least you now know why they fell out all those years ago.’

‘I know Nell’s side of things,’ I correct her. ‘Not Dad’s.’

But Flo rubs her hands together like she’s really excited. ‘The fairies’ magic has got stronger, don’t you see? Strong enough to stop the work taking place today!’

‘Yes, but Mr Giles is coming back in the morning,’ I say, my sense of dread rising. ‘I never thought I’d be this superstitious, Flo, but my brother’s got really very ill and if this is the fairies’ doing then what the heck’s going to happen when the trees come down?’

Flo’s hands go still.

‘Do you believe in fairies now?’ she says.

‘I … I think so.’

She shakes her head. ‘That’s not enough. For their magic to be at its strongest, you need to be absolutely sure.’

‘You said if I believed I’d see the fairies, and these past couple of days I think I’ve seen …’


Think
?’ Flo says. ‘Alice, you have to
know
.’

I take my hat off and scratch my head. It’s easy for Flo to give out orders. She’s not got a brother in hospital, or parents who barely speak to each other. She’s not miles from her real home.

I look down at my hat, my lovely green bobble hat. Something makes me turn it inside out. Putting it back on, I shift my bum along the branch.

Flo looks at me. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m climbing down. I want to try something.’

‘Be careful!’ she calls, but I’m already feeling for the branch below. And the one below that. I keep going until I reach the funny O-shaped branch that’s the fairy door.

Lowering myself onto it, I sit, feet dangling down. My heart is thumping fast. I can’t see much through the fairy door – just dead leaves and undergrowth.
So I wait. I keep looking, shifting position to get comfortable.

Then.

Down on the ground, something moves. I sit forward. It’s too dark to see properly … and yet
isn’t that a leg? An arm? It can’t be – they’re tiny!
Sure enough, small, people-shaped shadows begin flitting between the bushes.

‘Oh, Flo!’ I gasp.

I’m looking straight through the fairy door. And it’s a wonder I don’t fall out of the tree.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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