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Authors: Emma Carroll

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BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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After lunch, I’m at the sink washing up when Borage slopes inside. He looks like he’s just had a telling-off, which is odd considering how Nell dotes on him.

I go to the back doorstep. ‘What’s he done wrong?’

Nell’s holding her garden fork like a weapon. ‘
He’s
done nothing. But, look, someone has.’ She points at the trees nearest the fence.

I can’t see anything unusual. There’s just the fence and beyond it, the first of the trees.

‘That girl you saw in the woods, I bet this was
her
doing,’ Nell says.

Now I’m interested. I join her outside and see what she’s staring at. The trees that were marked this morning are now … well …
not
.

‘The white crosses have come off,’ I say.

‘Indeed, my dear.’

‘How? I mean, it hasn’t rained.’ Not that spray paint
comes off in the rain, at least it didn’t when Lexie and I did our bikes with it last summer.

‘It’s a trick, Alice, that’s what it is,’ she says. ‘People are against me cutting down Darkling Wood – the Travellers, the villagers, everyone. And now
someone
has done this on purpose to scare me off. It’s vandalism!’

I don’t think it’s worked.

‘Right,’ Nell says. ‘Let’s see if your friend is still in the woods, shall we?’

‘She’s not my friend!’

But Nell’s already striding off across the lawn. This is so embarrassing. She’s about to lay into a girl who probably goes to the local school, the one I’ve got to go to any day now.

Then, by some miracle, we hear the telephone ring. Nell stops. She thrusts her garden fork into the ground.

‘Drat. I’d better answer that. It might be a tree surgeon,’ she says. ‘Have a look for that girl, will you?’

As she goes inside, I head for the spot where I saw the girl this morning. There’s no sign of anyone. Everything’s covered in heavy dew that might actually be frost. It’s cold. A damp, raw cold that gets in your bones. I wish I’d worn my coat and hat.

Shivering, I pull out my phone. There’s one measly
bar of signal, but no missed calls or texts from Lexie, so I stuff it back in my pocket and keep walking.

‘You’ve not brought the dog, have you?’ says a nearby voice.

I stop dead.

‘Only I’m afraid of dogs.’

I can’t see anyone, just trees.

‘I’m up here,’ says the voice, a girl’s.

I look up. Dangling inches from my head are a pair of boots. They’re so close I can see their muddy soles. It makes me jump.

‘Blimey!’ I say. ‘Do you always sneak up on people?’

The girl is sitting right above me in a tree. It’s the same girl from this morning; I recognise her red coat. As she looks down at me, her hair falls forward. It’s very long and honey-coloured, and full of knots.

‘Promise me there’s no dog,’ she says again.

I feel a flurry of excitement. ‘The dog’s not here, honest. He’s inside in his bed.’

‘Watch out then,’ she says. ‘I’m coming down.’

She lands nearby with a thud.

‘Ouch, that was further than I thought,’ she says, shaking out her feet.

I open my mouth to speak. I need to tell her what
Nell said, that this is private property and she’s trespassing. But I can’t stop staring. She looks about my age, only smaller than me. And she’s wearing the weirdest outfit. Her boots make me think of ice skates without the blades, and she’s got on what looks like a petticoat. Over the top of it, her red coat reaches almost to the ground.

Finally, I get my words out. ‘Is that why you ran off earlier? Because of the dog?’

She nods, pushing her hair off her face. She’s pretty in a pink-cheeked, blue-eyed sort of way that reminds me of a china doll.

‘I’m sorry, you must have thought me very rude,’ she says.

Very odd, more like.

‘But, you see, there is a reason I don’t like dogs.’

‘Did you get bitten or something?’ I ask.

‘Yes, and it went poisonous. I was very sick.’

‘Didn’t you take antibiotics?’

She looks at me blankly.

‘Tablets. They get rid of the infection,’ I say, thinking suddenly about Theo.

Still the blank look. Perhaps I know too much about medicine for a person my age.

Then she wipes her hand in her coat and holds it
out to me. ‘Let’s do this properly: I’m Flo, short for Florence. Named after my great-great-grandmother. How do you do?’

No one at my school would dream of introducing themselves like that. Or of shaking hands.

‘I’m Alice,’ I say. ‘I’ve no idea who I’m named after.’

I don’t take her hand; it’s easier not to when she’s being nice and I’ve got to ask her to leave.

‘Look, my grandmother thinks you wiped the crosses off her trees,’ I say. ‘She’s furious. And if she catches you here she’ll …’

Flo interrupts. ‘She thinks it’s
me
?’

‘Yes, and you’d better not come back here at night, either. She hasn’t said so but I reckon if she catches you again she’ll call the police.’ I add this bit just to warn Flo. I don’t want her getting in trouble. ‘Thanks for finding my hat, though.’

‘Hat? What hat?’

‘The one you left on the gatepost. You’d turned it inside out.’

‘Aha,’ she says, like something’s just occurred to her. ‘You think that was me too?’

‘Wasn’t it?’

She beckons to me. ‘Come.’

Flo sets off in a direction I’ve not walked in before,
going so fast it’s difficult to keep up. The path dips and winds between the bushes until we end up in front of a very large tree.

‘This is a beech tree,’ says Flo. Her hand rests on the trunk. ‘It’s very special because of its magical properties. Do you know, you can sometimes see fairies here?’

It’s hard to keep a straight face.

‘Fairies? Are you serious?’

‘Yes, fairies,’ she says, quite matter-of-fact. ‘The hidden people. They’re all around us. Darkling Wood is full of them.’

I try not to laugh.

‘I’m sorry … it’s just that …’ The words
mad, bonkers, ridiculous
are about to burst from my mouth.

‘You don’t believe me,’ says Flo.

‘No offence,’ I say, ‘but no one actually
believes
in fairies.’

Flo looks at me as if I’m the one who’s mad. ‘Let me tell you, it was the fairies who wiped the crosses off those trees. They found your hat too, and turned it inside out. They’re trying to tell you something.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘Those are just warnings, Alice – tricks to get your attention. The woods are the fairies’ home and if your
grandmother goes ahead with cutting them down, there’ll be no more warnings. No more tricks. It’ll be out-and-out revenge.’

I sigh. This is getting stupid.

‘Look, the trees aren’t safe,’ I say. ‘They’re growing too close to the cottage, that’s all I know. Nell’s only protecting what’s hers.’

‘That won’t count for anything if she upsets the fairies. Be warned, if she goes ahead they will take their revenge. And it’ll be far worse than anything they’ve done so far.’

She is joking. She must be.

She’s staring over my shoulder now. I turn to see what she’s looking at. There’s movement in the bushes. I hear her gasp. For one stupid second I wonder if she really
has
seen a fairy.

But what’s caught her attention is the grey blur streaking towards us.

‘Borage, stop!’ I cry, blocking the path.

As he skids to a very clumsy halt, I grab his collar.

‘He looks scary but he’s all right really,’ I say, turning to Flo.

There is no Flo. She’s vanished.

Darkling Cottage
Tuesday 12th November 1918

 

My dear Alfred,

Apologies for the tiny writing – it’s a job to get my hands on any paper with everything being in such short supply. I’ve much to tell you. The queerest thing happened today, and because you’re a real brick you might just believe me. Be warned though, it is completely MAD.

I’ll start from the beginning.

Dear Maisie took ill at lunchtime. She was serving the potatoes when of a sudden she had to sit down. Sweat broke off her as if she’d been out in the rain so Mama sent her to bed and called Dr Wyatt, who says it’s influenza.

As if that wasn’t awful enough, I was then instructed to do her afternoon chores. It’s not funny, Alfred, not in the slightest. After a good telling-off about ‘my responsibilities to this household’ (I won’t repeat it but it wasn’t pleasant or fair), Mama sent me to the village with a basket and her ration book.

In the queue outside the shop the talk was of ’flu and which boys were home from the Front. There were black armbands everywhere I looked. It wasn’t very cheering, let me tell you. Nor was coming home with such small parcels of food. There
wasn’t nearly enough bacon for your stomach, dear brother. And to see our butter done up in such a tiny bundle made me want to weep.

As usual, I took the path through the wood. I’d nearly reached our gate when I saw the oddest, queerest thing. One moment, the path was clear. Then two people appeared round the corner. I say ‘people’, for they were human-shaped and appeared to be dancing. Yet the only music I heard was birdsong.

Stranger than any of this, though, was their size. They were TINY. Don’t think me mad when I tell you they were the height of a milk jug. It’s hard to believe, but imagine it, Alfred, a person not more than a few inches tall and dressed entirely in green! Stranger still, something fine like silk seemed to flutter between their shoulder blades, which I can only describe as wings.

In my shock, I dropped the basket. The ‘people’ took fright and vanished. Did they run, or fly? I couldn’t tell you. Where they had been, the air seemed to ripple, like the surface of a pond after a stone is thrown into it.

As I picked up the basket again, it felt heavier. By the time I reached home my arm was aching, and as I handed the groceries over to Mrs Cotter, she positively beamed. She’d never seen so much bacon, so she said. And hadn’t they been kind with the butter this week?

I confess I was very perplexed. The parcels I’d purchased had been meagre things, yet now they looked very decent-sized indeed. It was as if a magic spell or some such thing had been cast on them.

Now you know me and secrets: I really couldn’t keep this to myself. But without you here, I was a bit stuck as for who to tell. Finding Mama and Papa in the library, I’m afraid I blurted everything out to them.

Papa lowered his book and said did I know I was born between midnight on Friday and dawn on Saturday, which meant I was a Chime Child? According to old folklore, it meant I could see fairies and spirits.

Now this wasn’t the reaction I’d expected, and I rather liked the idea. Until Papa’s moustache twitched, that is, and I saw he was only teasing. Then came the part I did expect. Mama lectured me about how I already spend unhealthy amounts of time in the woods; I didn’t need my head filling with Papa’s silly stories.

I didn’t care to hear any of this. In fact, it made me feel rather out of sorts. So when Mama asked if I was all right, I admitted I had a headache coming on – I’d not noticed until then. She reached over and felt my forehead, declaring it burning hot.

So here I am, propped up on pillows writing to you. Chime Child or not, my head is pounding. Every part of me aches,
even my fingernails and toenails, if that’s possible. Poor Maisie has my absolute sympathy: this ’flu is ghastly.

Yet do believe me when I tell you what I saw today. It wasn’t fever or my wild imagination, though our parents believe it was both. I’m desperate to see those winged ‘people’ again. And I want you to see them, Alfred, for they were something otherworldly, of that I’m certain.

Until then,

Your dearest sister.

WEDNESDAY 13 NOVEMBER

8

It turns out the local school can take me straight away. So just after eight o’clock Nell drives me up to the main road, where I’ll catch the bus for Ferndean High School. I’m a bag of nerves, and Nell’s mood isn’t helping. A man was supposed to come today to start work on the wood, but he’s cancelled, so Nell’s driving like a maniac, and by the time I get out of the car, I’m feeling sick.

Two girls are at the bus stop already. Neither of them is Flo, though I’m guessing she must go to Ferndean High because it’s the only secondary school for miles. The girls are listening to music, sharing the headphones and singing badly like me and Lexie do. It makes me miss my best friend even more.

The headphone girls notice me watching. They nudge each other. I try to smile. Like the men in the
shop, they don’t smile back. My stomach sinks.
Please don’t let it be like this all day.

After another few minutes, the school bus arrives. Inside it’s already so rammed the windows have steamed up. The headphone girls sit with their mates who’ve saved them seats. I hang on to the tiny hope that Flo’s already on board, and when she sees me she’ll ask me to sit with her. But there’s no girl in a red coat here. There are no free seats either. People are staring now. I feel my cheeks getting warm.

‘Didn’t know I had an extra one today. You’re new, are you?’ says the driver.

I nod. Everyone else is in blazers and ties. And here’s me in jeans and trainers because it’s all I’ve brought from home. The driver reaches behind him. He pulls down a fold-out seat.

‘Sit here for today,’ he says. ‘And put your belt on.’

The seat is at right angles to everyone else’s, which means I’m in full view of the whole bus.

Great, I think gritting my teeth, just
great
.

*

Things don’t improve massively when I get to school. In reception a bald-headed man in a tight, shiny suit
introduces himself as Mr Jennings, my Head of Year. He gives me a printout of my timetable.

‘Period one is History,’ he says. ‘Come on, I’ll walk you over.’

First, though, he takes me to Lost Property. The cupboard is so big we both stand inside it, which is horrible because it stinks of old PE kit. Plastic boxes labelled ‘coats’, ‘school skirts’, ‘black shoes’ are on every shelf. Mr Jennings reaches into one and pulls out a blazer.

‘Try this.’

I hold it between my fingers.

‘It won’t bite,’ Mr Jennings says.

He also gives me a tie, a shirt and a skirt, which I’m to wear tomorrow. It all smells of someone else. When I get back to Nell’s I’ll have to wash the lot, but for now I stuff it into my bag.

The History block is on the other side of the school. We go down corridors, up stairs, across these funny walkways that link different buildings. The whole place looks like it’s grown over the years, so there’s extra brick bits, glass bits, even a few of those ugly grey huts. It’s nothing like my old school, which is sleek and new and looks like a supermarket.

‘You’re staying at Darkling Cottage, eh?’ Mr Jennings says. ‘Interesting place your grandmother’s got there.’

He’s doing the friendly teacher thing and I suppose it beats making small talk about heart transplants, but only just. I bet he knows what’s happening to the wood. And I bet he’s got an opinion about it too. But he moves on, telling me my lesson ‘buddies’ for the next few weeks will be Max and Ella.

‘They’re great students,’ he says. ‘You’ll probably find you’ve lots in common.’

All I hear is the word ‘weeks’.

*

The class is working quietly when we arrive. As the door opens, everyone looks up. Thirty pairs of eyes fix on me. I feel my palms go damp, and just hope no one here wants to shake hands like Flo did.

Mr Jennings leaves, and the class teacher directs me to a free seat. I’m glad to sit down. There’s a boy on one side of me; on the other side is a girl wearing badges on her blazer.

‘I’m Ella,’ she whispers.

I try to smile.

‘That’s Max.’ She points her pen at the boy next to me, who gives a lazy wave.

I’m passed an exercise book and told to put my name on it. The teacher says her name is Mrs Copeland, and before I’ve even got my pencil case out, the lesson picks up again. With everyone watching the teacher now, I sneak a quick look around for Flo, but there’s no sign of her. She must be in another class.

On the wall there’s a display about the First World War, with old photos and newspaper stories. One picture is of lines and lines of war graves stretching away over the hill into the distance; I can’t believe there’s so many. It’s not like I knew those men or anything, but they were someone’s dad, someone’s brother. It makes me get a lump in my throat.

Meanwhile, Mrs Copeland is still talking.

‘… so our next class project will follow directly. We’ll be exploring the impact of the First World War on normal people’s lives, what happened
after
the war ended. For your projects, I’d like you each to choose a person who was alive in 1918. No one famous, please – just everyday, normal people. Your focus will be to find out how the end of the war affected their life.’

There’s groaning in the back row, which Mrs Copeland bats away with her hand.

‘Honestly,’ she says. ‘I set you lot an interesting topic, and you’d think I’d asked you to remove your own toenails!’

To be honest, the project sounds better than the Romans, which is what we were doing back home. Ella thinks so too; she’s already got an idea for hers and it’s to do with animals.

‘Surprise, surprise,’ says Max, rolling his eyes.

‘Animals were affected by the war,’ she says. ‘People always forget that.’

‘But the project is meant to be about a
person
,’ says Max.

‘So?’ Ella shrugs. ‘It can be a
person
who works with animals, can’t it?’

One of the badges on Ella’s blazer says ‘Rats Have Rights’. The others are of dolphins and elephants. Max sees I’ve noticed.

‘She’s an animal activist, aren’t you, Ella?’ he says and grins at me. I grin back.

‘The word is
conservationist
, stupid,’ she says, but looks pleased.

‘Better not tell her where you’re staying, Alice, or what your gran’s about to do to those trees of hers,’ Max says.

I stop grinning. These people are such gossips.
Is there anyone who actually
doesn’t
know about Darkling Wood? I stare at my exercise book, wishing we could talk about something else, but Ella’s now trying to read my face.

‘What’s that about trees?’ She’s frowning. Thinking. Then she slaps the table. ‘Not Darkling Wood? Are you staying there?
Really
?’

She says it so sharply the students in front of us turn and stare. I squirm in my seat.

‘Yes, but only for a bit,’ I say.

‘So your grandmother’s the one who wants to cut down the wood?’

‘She says she has to. The trees are growing too close to the house and it’s unsafe.’

Ella pulls a face and goes quiet. I don’t think she believes me. When the lesson ends, she doesn’t wait for me, either. She’s been told to be my class buddy, but she clearly doesn’t want to be my friend.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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