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Authors: Emma Carroll

In Darkling Wood (17 page)

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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The bus drops me in the village. From here, it takes just under fifteen minutes to reach Darkling Wood on foot. I can’t decide if I want to rush home to see what’s happened or to walk extra slowly. Either way, I’m sick with nerves.

I’m halfway up the hill when Mr Giles’s jeep comes tearing down it. He’s driving so fast it almost knocks me into the hedge.

‘Road hog!’ I shout after him.

He must’ve come from Nell’s, I realise, and it makes my stomach leap. I can’t bear not knowing any longer. I have to see what he’s done – or not done – to the trees. I start running. I don’t stop till I’ve reached Darkling Wood.

At first glance, nothing’s changed. I gasp with relief. The trees are still here, pressing tall and dark around the house. Something’s been cut, though,
because there’s sawdust on the grass like a sprinkling of snow.

Then I see it.

It’s happened to the two trees nearest the house. Right near the top on each one there are gaps where branches used to be. It’s clear as anything – the cut bark stands out orange against the trunk. On the ground underneath, the branches lie in a mangled heap.

A new whoosh of sickness comes over me. The magic wasn’t strong enough, after all. Mr Giles came here today and started work. Despite everything, we couldn’t save Darkling Wood.

‘The tree surgeon chap’s just been called away.’

I spin round to see Dad coming towards me across the lawn. He looks tired. Pale. He really needs a shave.

‘How’s Theo?’ I ask, heart in mouth. ‘Is he any better?’

‘He is,’ says Dad.

‘Better than when we spoke this morning?’

‘I think so. They’ve upped his medication. It seems to be working.’

I breathe normally again. This is
very
good news.

‘Poor Mr Giles, though – his son has just had an accident,’ says Dad. ‘He fell off his bike, apparently.’

The sick feeling lands back in my stomach.

‘Max? But I only saw him half an hour ago!’

‘Don’t look so upset, Alice,’ Dad says. ‘It didn’t sound life-threatening.’

I forget all about Max being on his phone now. I’m worried. If he rides a bike like his father drives a van, it’s bound to be bad.

‘I’ll ask Nell if I can call Mr Giles,’ I say, turning for the house.

Dad stops me with a hand on my arm. ‘I’m sure it’s not serious. Let Mr Giles get home to his son first.’

‘He’s called Max,’ I say.

Dad smiles. ‘Is he a friend from school?’

I nod.

‘Then you’d better call this
Max
tonight, if you can last that long.’

My face goes hot at Dad’s teasing. But he’s quickly serious again.

‘Walk with me for a bit?’ he says.

‘All right.’

Sidestepping the cut-down branches, we enter the wood. Soon the pile of branches will be bigger. There’ll be more lopsided trees. More orange scars.

Or will there?

Not if Mr Giles gets called away again. Not if Dad’s here long enough to talk to Nell. I don’t want Max to
be hurt, and yet I feel a flicker of hope. Theo’s getting better. The woods aren’t gone yet. I think the fairies’ magic is still working.

Only maybe now they need a little help.

I stare at Dad’s back, up ahead on the path. It’s now or never. I grit my teeth.

‘Nell told me what you did,’ I say.

Dad turns his head slightly: he’s listening.

‘Taking your brother’s ashes was a rubbish thing to do, Dad.’

He clears his throat.

‘You must’ve had a reason. What did Nell do to you?’

He stops. Turns to look at me. ‘What are you talking about, Alice? Who says she
did
anything?’

‘She does.’

‘Then ask her. I’m sure she’ll be happy to fill you in.’

‘She says I should hear it from you.’

Dad rolls his eyes. ‘Drop it, will you?’

‘Nell says that would be letting you off the hook.’

He laughs, but not in a funny way. Then he looks skywards. At the ground. Anywhere rather than at me.

‘I can’t talk about it. Not now this has happened with Theo.’

I miss a breath.


Theo
? What the heck does you stealing your brother’s ashes have to do with him?’

‘Leave it, Alice.’

Dad starts walking again, faster now, hands stuffed in his pockets. I go after him. I’m not
leaving
anything. No way.

‘If this is about Theo then I’ve a right to know!’ I say.

No answer.

‘Dad! You can’t just bring Theo up, then leave it dangling. That’s really not fair!’

Dad charges on ahead through branches and brambles that flick back into my face. The path takes a sharp left. There are trees on either side of us. Big, strong, towering trees. And I know I should be glad they’re still here, that Mr Giles hasn’t got this far, but all I can think of is what Dad’s just said.

We end up at the beech tree. I’m not exactly surprised. This is Flo’s special tree, and after last night I suppose it’s mine. Only it won’t be anyone’s special tree for much longer, not unless we finish this.

Dad rests his hand on the trunk.

‘Jacob died falling from this tree,’ he says.

Jacob: he’s a real person to me now, that funny boy
in the striped jumper, hanging upside down from a branch.

‘I guessed that,’ I say, though I don’t mention I’ve climbed the tree too – and against Nell’s wishes.

‘He was only eleven. I was older. Old enough to know better.’

‘Nell doesn’t blame you for the accident, Dad.’

Dad’s hand falls to his side. He does another of his not-funny laughs. ‘No, but she never felt the same about this place afterwards. And she does blame me for taking his ashes.’

‘Well, you
did
take his ashes.’

‘Do you know what she took?’ he says, flaring up. ‘Well?
Do
you?’

‘No.’ I take a step back. ‘That’s why I asked.’

I’m sensing it’s got something to do with fairies.

Dad’s crying now in big hard sobs.

‘She took his heart, Alice. He was eleven years old and she took his heart.’

I stare at him. I don’t understand.

‘He belonged in these woods. This was where his heart was.’ He stamps the ground with his foot. ‘Right here.’

I nod: I think I follow that part.

‘But Nell had other plans. He was a healthy young boy, so she made him a …’ He pauses. Clears his throat: ‘… a donor. His heart was given to someone else.’

I nod again. I want him to keep talking, though I try to hide my shock. I mean, Jacob? A heart donor? This is a massive thing to take in.

‘But that’s good, surely,’ I say, thinking of how long we waited for a match, with Theo getting sicker every day. Then I look into Dad’s face. ‘
Isn’t it?

‘It should’ve been. Except the person who got Jacob’s heart rejected it and died anyway, a week after surgery.’

I go cold.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘That’s …’

‘Awful. Sad. Painful,’ Dad cuts in. ‘Yes, it was. That poor family’s hopes were raised and then dashed again within a matter of days.’

It feels uncomfortably close. Too close. Dad and I both fall silent. All around us the woods are quiet too, but what’s charging round my head feels deafening.

Dad’s the first to speak again.

‘I was never happy with Nell’s idea from the start. I just couldn’t … you know … handle the thought of Jacob’s heart still alive inside someone else. I couldn’t bear it that part of him was out there in the world and he wasn’t here with us.’

I know what Dad means. When I saw Theo, it was strange to think of another person’s heart pumping away inside him. How that person was loved and missed just as much as we loved Theo. And how part of that person still survived.

‘It’s not a bad thing Nell did,’ I say. ‘Where would Theo be now without a donor? At least someone gets to live.’

‘But not Jacob,’ Dad says through clenched teeth.

I don’t know what to say. In my head, though, things are getting clearer. This is why Dad got so scared, isn’t it? Why he stopped seeing us when Theo got really sick. Why he punched a wall at the hospital that day and why his hands shook all the way home in the car. It doesn’t excuse it, but it is starting to make sense.

Dad takes a deep breath and rolls his shoulders. ‘So now you know,’ he says, as if that’s finished and we can all move on.

I’m not ready. There’s something else.

‘All this time we’ve had to manage without you, Dad,’ I say. ‘You should have stuck with us, not gone off to Devon. We’d have been all right.’

Dad sighs. Pulls a face. Something in me snaps.

‘Don’t look like that!’ I cry. ‘We’re your family! You can’t just replace us with another one – a
better
one – because you got bored of us!’

‘Alice, come on …’ He opens his arms.

I step back. ‘Well, I hope you’re happy! Because actually we’ve got along JUST FINE without you!’

I’m shaking with anger. Dad messed it up with us and here he is, still messing up with Nell. It’s pathetic.

‘You’d better tell Nell what you did with those ashes!’ I say. ‘You can’t just walk away from her too!’

Dad won’t look at me.

‘Especially if they are here in the woods. Before she cuts the lot down. Before it’s too late.’

‘Why?’

Is he that dumb? Do I really have to spell it out?

‘Because,
Dad
, this is your big chance to do something right for a …’

‘Alice! Alice! Are you there?’

It’s Nell. I see her blue jumper through the trees. She’s coming our way. I stare at Dad.

‘Now’s your chance,’ I say.

Borage finds us first. He puts his paws on my shoulders and lands a big doggy lick on my nose.

‘There you are,’ says Nell, stepping into the clearing. ‘I was just coming to ask … oh.’ Seeing Dad, she stops dead.

Gently, I push Borage off because I need to breathe.

‘Dad and I have been talking,’ I say.

Dad fidgets with his car keys like he’s planning his escape.

‘Really?’ says Nell, drily.

‘And we agree,’ I glare at Dad, ‘
don’t we
, that it’s time this thing between you got sorted.’

Neither of them speaks. It goes on like that for a good few minutes: two grown people staring at their feet like they’re kids in the playground at school. Then
Dad tips his head back and looks up into the beech tree. For a second, I think he’s seen Flo. Then he moves closer to the trunk, reaches up on tiptoe and puts his hand into the fairy door. He pulls out a piece of paper. It’s that same expensive-looking note Flo and I almost fell out over. I’ve no idea what Dad’s doing with it now.

‘You always did like to use my best stationery, David,’ says Nell, as he gives her the note.

Through the thick paper I can just make out the words:
‘PLEASE KEEP MY BROTHER SAFE.’

I look at Nell. The paper trembles in her hands. She tilts her chin towards the fairy door. ‘Is Jacob here?’

I cover my mouth with both hands. The note isn’t about Theo. No wonder Flo didn’t understand why I was so upset.

This note is from Dad.

‘He was. I left his ashes here,’ Dad says, indicating the branch where last night Flo and I sat. ‘The fairies took him away.’

‘David …’ says Nell.

I try to picture what someone’s ashes might look like – dust, I suppose, or sand. Certainly nothing like a boy in a striped jumper hanging upside down from that same branch.

Dad keeps talking. ‘Jacob loved this tree. He always
said he could see fairies through the hole. I never saw them myself, but he was adamant he could. He said one day he wanted to join them.’

Despite everything I feel myself smiling inside. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but when I think of how beautiful those fairies were, I’m glad Jacob’s resting place was here. Yet Nell’s working her jaw like mad. She looks ready to explode.

Very carefully, she folds the piece of paper and puts it in her pocket. She takes a deep breath. Then she crouches down at the base of the tree, putting her hands flat on the ground as if she’s warming them before a fire. She shuts her eyes. Goes very still. The only thing moving is the tears rolling down her face.

By the time Nell gets to her feet again, the light is already fading. Cool, heavy night air hangs between the trees.

‘I don’t believe in fairies, David,’ she says.

‘No,’ Dad says. ‘You’ve always been clear on that.’

‘Just as
you
didn’t believe in organ donation.’ She sounds sharp as ever; I’m not sure anything has changed.

‘But,’ she says, ‘life has a funny way of working these things out for us. You have had Theo’s plight to contend with, and I now have a place to come and think about my son.’

‘And the woods?’ Dad asks.

As Nell looks up at the trees a smile spreads across her face. ‘Do you know, I may have been a little overzealous in my plans for the wood – Mr Giles has been trying to tell me so all day. I’ll have a word with him, see if we can’t just clear the trees closest to the house.’

Then she goes up to Dad until she’s only inches away. I hold my breath. Her hand touches him on the shoulder. I’m shocked by how gentle she is.

‘My dear,’ she says. ‘You did what Jacob would’ve wanted. It’s time I accepted that fact.’

Nell and Dad walk back to the house – not arm in arm or anything, but they’re talking in normal voices, which is a good start. I let them go on ahead. Borage stays with me, sniffing the air.

The sky has gone very pale, which makes the trees look darker, stronger. The magic of this place makes my skin prickle. And now it’s done. It’s over. The woods are saved. I keep an eye out for Flo; I’ve so much to tell her. But it goes on getting darker, and she doesn’t come.

‘Come on, Borage,’ I say, after a while. ‘Let’s go.’

We’ll come back tomorrow, because I know Darkling Wood will still be here.

THURSDAY 21 NOVEMBER

34

When I wake up the next morning, something’s different; at first I can’t work out what. It’s not the dinner we ate together like a family, or Dad staying the night on Nell’s sofa, though all that’s different enough.

As I sit up and rub my eyes, I see what’s changed. The whole room looks brighter. There’s even a little line of sunshine coming in under the curtains. I get dressed quickly and head downstairs. In the hallway, there’s a big patch of sunlight on the floor where I’ve never seen it before. And Nell’s being unusually polite to someone on the phone.

‘Pollarding? So that should slow their growth down, yes? Good. Excellent, Mr Giles,’ she says.

Through the open sitting-room door, I see Dad’s feet sticking out from under a blanket.

I hover in the doorway. ‘What’s pollarding, Dad?’

‘Huh? Pollarding?’ He sits up, bleary-eyed. ‘It’s a bit like pruning. You cut something back to stop it growing so fast.’

‘A trim, then.’ Though I expect this sounds too much like hairdressing for Nell. Turning to her, I wave to get her attention.

‘Ask how Max is!’ I hiss. ‘Can I speak to him?’ But she’s still in full flow on the phone.

‘What you cut yesterday has already improved the light situation here. It’s really rather remarkable. The whole house feels different.’

Eventually, she asks, ‘Your son – has he recovered from yesterday’s mishap?’

There’s a long, nerve-racking wait as Nell ums and ahs to Mr Giles’s reply.

‘Well, well,’ she says, finally. ‘It’s as if some malign force was against us all along.’

She’s nearer the truth than she realises, but Nell being Nell simply laughs it off. Then, ignoring my outstretched hands, she puts the phone down.

‘Was Max too ill to speak?’ I ask, feeling awful.

‘On the contrary, my dear, he’s on his way to school,’ says Nell.

‘Hang on, so it wasn’t a bad accident, then?’

‘It wasn’t an
accident
at all. Max made it up.’

‘What? Why?’

‘According to his father, Max did it for you,’ Nell says, raising her eyebrows at me. Which makes me blush. Mostly, though, I’m pretty chuffed.

The rest doesn’t take much working out. Once I told him about the fairies, Max knew we had to save the woods. So he lied, knowing how his father would stop work at once and rush home.

‘I owe Max a thank you,’ I say, though maybe even that was the fairies’ work and I should be thanking them too.

*

Halfway through breakfast, the phone rings.

‘I’ll get it,’ I say, thinking it might be Mum.

When I pick up the phone no one speaks. I hear a person breathing.

‘Very funny, weirdo.’

‘I’m not a weirdo,’ says a voice.

I almost drop the phone.

‘Theo?’

‘Alice?’

My throat goes thick. I do a quick fan of my face
to keep back the tears. ‘You little monkey! I’m calling your doctor immediately! DOCTOR!’

Theo laughs. It’s a proper giggle that makes me sunshine-happy. I hear Mum in the background telling him not to get too excited. But we carry on until she takes the phone off him.

‘Hi Alice,’ she says. ‘Lexie’s mum’s had her baby at last and they’re out of hospital. Jen’s coming with Lexie to pick you up today.’

I stop smiling. ‘What?’

‘They’ll get to you about lunchtime – well, that’s what she said, so let’s hope her timekeeping’s better than Kate’s. The main thing is you don’t have to go with Dad or stay on with Nell, okay?’

I twirl the telephone cord round my finger. I don’t actually know if it
is
okay.

‘I’m all right here,’ I say.

Mum sighs. ‘I thought you’d be happy, Alice.’

Now the tears start tumbling down my face.

‘I am happy,’ I say. ‘I really am.’

*

I don’t go to school today, which I’m not exactly sad about; I can’t say I’ll miss Ferndean High. But I am sad
not to say goodbye to Ella or Max, so I make sure I ask Nell for Mr Giles’s phone number.

Then there’s Flo. I’m halfway out the back door when Nell stops me.

‘Pack first,’ she says. ‘And clean your room.’

I glare at her. She can’t be serious, not when I’ve got so much to tell Flo.

Dad looks up from his bacon sandwich. ‘Just do it, love.’

So I stomp back upstairs, but it’s funny, really. No one’s ever had to tell me to tidy my room. And now that they have, I’m a tiny bit pleased.

It takes all of two minutes to stuff clothes in a bag and straighten the covers on my bed. I take the letters out of the carrier and return them to their box. I’m careful to put them back as I found them, in date order, tied with green ribbon. Once I’ve finished, they look untouched. Just as they’ve always been.

Yet something has very definitely changed.

Me, for starters.

Once Borage sees bags in the hallway, he won’t leave my side. He insists on coming with me to the woods.

‘No frightening Flo, d’you hear?’ I say as we go down the path. He twitches his ears to show he’s heard.

But I think of a million reasons why she won’t be here: school, illness, Travellers moving on – if she’s a Traveller at all. I’m so deep in thought I’m not watching where I’m going. I walk straight into something very hard.

‘Ahhh!’ I clutch my forehead. ‘What the …?’

‘You should look where you’re going,’ laughs Flo.

Squinting upwards, I see the boots I’ve just walked into. My head throbs like mad and already there’s a lump beneath my fingers. But that doesn’t stop the big happy
whoop
in my chest.

‘You’re here!’

‘Where else would I be?’

Which makes perfect sense, coming from her.

‘You won’t believe it, but my grandmother’s changed her mind! She’s not cutting down the wood after all! Isn’t it brilliant?’

There’s a silence. I wish I could see Flo’s face.

‘It’s more than brilliant, Alice,’ she says finally. ‘You did it. You believed in magic.’

‘I believed in bad magic as well as the good stuff,’ I say, thinking of Theo on the phone this morning and how different things might’ve been. ‘But now I’m going home today, so I’d rather not say goodbye to a pair of boots.’

Flo drops down beside me with a thud and I burst out laughing.

‘Ow! That hurt!’ she says, shaking out her feet. ‘What’s so funny?’

‘You did that the first time I met you – well, the first
proper
time,’ I say.

As she pushes her hair off her face, I see her nose has gone pink.

‘Are you crying?’

‘No.’ But as she dabs her eyes in her coat sleeve it’s obvious she is.

‘I’ll think of you each time I climb a tree, and whenever I see …’

‘You won’t,’ she cuts in.

‘Oh?’

‘You saw fairies when you needed to. And that’s more than most people ever do.’

Now it’s my turn to fill up. I’m so sad I ache. But it’s sad in a good way because something amazing happened, even if it never does again.

‘In that case, I’m glad I saw fairies with you, Flo.’

‘Oh, Alice, I’m glad too.’

Borage, who’s been sniffing around the trees, picks this moment to lollop over. He looks like a giant wolf. Flo breathes in sharply.

‘Send him away!’ she gasps.

Borage stops, ears down, eyes mournful.

‘He’s all right. Look at him – he’s a softie.’

As if to prove it, Borage lies down and rolls over. Flo stares at him, eyes on stalks.

Then, after a bit, she says, ‘I … I think … maybe … he wants a tummy rub?’

‘He
always
wants a tummy rub,’ I say.

At first, it’s just me doing the stroking. But eventually Flo kneels beside me. She touches his front paw. Then his upside-down head. The tip of his tail thumps against the ground. We sit down with Borage stretched out blissfully between us. And we stay like it for ages, until I hear a car.

It’s Jen and Lexie. They’re early.

Grinning, I scramble to my feet.

‘Come and meet Lexie!’ I say to Flo.

I go on ahead, back to the house. The garden is full of voices I know well, yet it’s strange to hear them here at Darkling Cottage. As soon as I’m through the gate I see Lexie talking to Dad. I’ve forgotten how much I’ve missed her.

Once we’ve hugged and squealed, Lexie takes out her phone and shows me a photo.

‘Alice,’ says Lexie, ‘meet Baby.’

The baby gazes out at us with eyes so blue they look black.

‘Adorable,’ I say. ‘But
Baby
?’

‘We can’t agree on a name,’ Jen calls over. ‘Got any suggestions, Alice? We’re well and truly stuck.’

I look at Lexie, blowing kisses to the picture, and smile.

‘Brother or sister?’ I ask.

‘A little sister,’ Lexie says, not taking her eyes off her phone.

I don’t know why but I’m glad.

The gate clicks open and there’s Flo. I think she’s been hanging back, waiting for us to stop squealing. As she crosses the lawn towards us now, her long coat trails in the grass.

I touch Lexie’s arm. ‘There’s someone I’d like you to say hi to.’

She looks up. Flo stops a few feet away. She’s so small next to Lexie. So thin.

‘Flo, this is my very good friend Lexie from home,’ I say. ‘Lexie, this is my very good friend Flo from … the woods.’

I wait for them to smile and say hello or something. But Flo puts her hands in her pockets and Lexie frowns.

‘What’s the matter?’ I ask.

‘Who are you talking to, Alice?’ Lexie says.

‘Flo. I told you.’

‘But it’s just us. Everyone else has gone inside.’

I don’t know what she’s on about. Flo’s right in front of me. So close I can almost touch her hand.

Lexie’s mouth falls open. ‘Blimey, Alice, no wonder you’re seeing stuff. You’ve got a massive bump on your head.’

She’s right; it feels the size of a golf ball.

‘I’m fine,’ I say.


I’m fine
,’ laughs Lexie. ‘You ALWAYS say that. Sometimes it’s okay to be
not fine
too, you know.’

Within moments Nell, Dad, Jen and Borage are all crowding round me. Over their shoulders I watch as Flo slips away between the trees.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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