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Authors: Emma Carroll

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BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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Darkling Cottage
Wednesday 13th November 1918

 

To dear Alfred,

You’ll be glad to know I woke feeling better today, though Mama insists I stay in bed. I’ve never known a day pass so slowly. I’ve stared at my wallpaper so much I’m now seeing yellow roses when I shut my eyes. Even worse is that Mama keeps the fire burning and refuses to open any windows. Yet despite all this, I have an EXCITING thing to share.

Poor Maisie was taken home to her parents last night. (This is not the exciting part.) It’s feared she has the ’flu much worse than me and is in a sorry state indeed. Maisie’s so fond of you, Alfred. On hearing the war was over, she saved the top of the milk just for you in case you arrived in time for supper. I so hope she’s back with us when you arrive home.

Mama only told me all this after a complete stranger brought me breakfast. I’m afraid I screamed – well, the silly girl made me jump out of my skin! The noise brought Mama running. And so I was introduced to Anna, our temporary housemaid.

Afterwards, I sat in a chair while Anna washed my hair, which was still damp from last night’s fever. She wasn’t gentle like Maisie nor did she sing soppy songs. She was
rather harsh with the comb and laughed at how filthy the water had turned. You see her hair’s cut short at the neck – bobbed, she calls it, and says it’s easy to keep tidy. She’s quite the modern girl. She wears her skirts inches above her ankles too, and when she speaks she looks you in the eye. But I should be grateful: after all, she has offered to post this letter.

Sorry to run on. That isn’t the exciting part either.

It being a sunny day, I asked Anna to open the windows. I knew Mama wouldn’t approve. The fresh air made me cough rather and I was still weak, but it was good just to see the outside world. Blue sky, dead leaves, shining wet grass – everything looked super-bright.

NOW comes the EXCITING part!

Sitting at the window, I saw something move between the trees. It looked like a handkerchief or a slip blown free of the washing line. Yet even between gusts it kept moving, and I knew then it couldn’t be laundry. And before you ask, I was most definitely awake.

As it came closer to the window, my heart began to race. This thing I gazed at was just like the people I saw yesterday on the path. Its tiny form was dressed in green and on its back were the most incredible little fast-beating wings.

Oh, Alfred, it was such a sight!

Even more wonderful was that in watching it, I felt
suddenly completely revived. My legs lost their ache and my head cleared. I even felt a little less sad for Maisie.

It got me thinking, Alfred. Papa may have been teasing when he called me a Chime Child, yet I wonder if there’s some truth in it. What I saw out of the window now was definitely something magical. But other than you, I didn’t know who to share it with.

When Mama came in she didn’t utter a word about the open windows; she had no need to. For the windows, dear brother, were now SHUT.

Neither Anna nor I had closed them. She’d been tidying my bed, and as I’ve explained, I was sitting in my chair. Yet the sashes were down, the catches closed. There was no breeze. The air in the room felt warm and still. Make of that what you will!

I’ve only been ill for a day and a night, Alfred. Yet it feels different around here somehow, as if after this awful war life is finally starting to recover. I don’t know quite what I mean. But there’s one thing that would make things even better, and that’s you being home again.

Your loving sister.

THURSDAY 14 NOVEMBER

11

The lesson before lunch is History again. By the time I reach the classroom, Ella’s already there and I see she’s put her bag on my seat.

‘It’s taken,’ she says, not looking at me.

My hand’s still on the chair but I don’t dare sit down. Other people are staring now. I hear someone whisper my name. Then Max comes in, hair on end, and flops down into his seat.

‘You don’t have to stand on my account, Alice,’ he says. Then he sees Ella’s bag. ‘Like that, is it?’

‘She’s sitting somewhere else,’ Ella mutters.

But there isn’t anywhere to sit. Everyone’s in their seats now. Mrs Copeland’s got her back to us as she wipes the board clean. Any second the lesson will start.

Max leans towards Ella, then swipes her bag from the chair.

‘Hey!’ she squeals, grabbing at it.

Mrs Copeland spins round.

‘Sit!’ Max hisses to me.

I slide into my seat, very aware of Ella bristling beside me.

As soon as the lesson starts, though, it’s easier to block her out. Mrs Copeland turns the lights down and shows us black-and-white newsreel of soldiers coming home from the First World War. They’re walking through a city that might be London. I’m struck by how young they look: some can’t be much older than us. People watch on the pavements, in windows, on balconies, waving hankies or hats in the air. It’s a cold winter’s day, judging by how wrapped up everyone is and how when they speak steam puffs from their mouths. Also the trees are bare; it’s funny but I’m starting to notice things like that.

Afterwards, Mrs Copeland asks us about difficult things we’ve faced: an argument, a disappointment or something we’ve lost.

‘When you’re going through a bad time, what helps get you by?’ She scans the room for someone to ask. I keep my eyes down so she can’t pick me.

‘Eating chocolate!’ someone says.

We all laugh. Mrs Copeland nods enthusiastically. ‘Why do people eat chocolate?’

‘Because it tastes nice?’ says the same student.

‘It takes your mind off the bad stuff,’ adds Ella.

‘Good,’ says Mrs Copeland. ‘How else might you cope with a difficult time in your life?’

Max’s hand goes up. ‘You focus on it ending and life going back to normal again.’


Exactly!
Excellent, Max! Think of those soldiers writing home during the war. It kept their spirits up, kept them hoping they’d go back home and get on with the lives they’d left behind. But sadly, for many, it wasn’t like that. In the time they’d been away fighting, life had changed.’

She tells us to put today’s date in our books and the title ‘November 1918: How Life at Home Had Changed’. We have to list all the changes we can think of: I come up with women doing men’s jobs, like in factories and stuff, because the men were away fighting. Ella’s page is already filling up with a mind map. When she sees me looking, she hides it with her hand. She keeps it up all lesson. She’ll talk to Max but if I speak she pretends she hasn’t heard me.

By the time the lunch bell rings, I’ve gone from upset to angry. Already today I’ve been told off for forgetting to do last night’s homework. I’ve never been late with any homework before. I actually
like
the routine of it, the fact that it’s boring and normal. And now I’ve not done my maths or French, I feel almost shaky. What I don’t need is grief from Ella as well.

It’s not
my
idea to cut down Darkling Wood. Left to me I’d keep the trees and try to find another way to protect the house. But what Nell’s doing isn’t a crime; she’s just trying to stop tree roots destroying her house.

As we leave the lesson, Ella nudges Max.

‘See you in the canteen?’ She’s clearly forgiven him for the bag incident. ‘I’m just going to the IT room to print something.’

‘Sure. Alice and I’ll go ahead and get a table.’

Ella pulls a ‘yuk’ face. I’m thinking the same. I want to eat lunch without someone scowling at me over their chips.

‘See you later. I’m fine on my own,’ I say, shouldering past them both.

Once I’ve got my food, I find an empty table by the window. No one else takes the other free seats; I must
have ‘new person’ disease. Either that or every student here is what Nell calls an eco-warrior, though most are dropping litter on the floor. When I check my phone for messages, there’s nothing new from home. The battery’s low anyway, so I stuff it back in my bag and try not to think about Lexie or Theo, who I’d give a million pounds just to see.

Looking up, I notice Max weaving his way between the tables. People wave at him, offer him a seat, but he’s heading straight for me.

He drops into the chair opposite and stares at my half-eaten lunch. ‘So they really do sell healthy food here.’

‘I think it’s pretending to be a salad.’

Max grins. His eyes go all twinkly brown, which makes me feel a bit better. It occurs to me then that he might know Flo – he certainly knows most people round here.

‘Does a girl called Flo go to this school?’ I ask. ‘She’s probably in our year group. Light brown hair, quite skinny, wears weird clothes?’

Max pulls a thinking face.

‘She could be a Traveller,’ I add.

‘Ella might know her, I suppose.’

I go quiet.

Max grins. ‘What happened to your tie?’

I untuck the crumpled end of it from my jumper. It looks a right state. ‘The dog chewed it.’

‘Ah, that old excuse,’ says Max. ‘Teachers never believe it, even when it’s true.’

‘But it
is
true! I swear on my …’ I stop myself mentioning Theo, though he’s the first person that comes into my head. Instead, I pick up my fork and jab at a tomato.

‘Sir told us about your brother,’ says Max. He’s not grinning any more.

‘Us?’

‘Ella and me.’

I squish the tomato flat on the plate.

‘Ella’s okay really,’ he says. ‘She’s just very into conservation stuff. It makes her a bit … well … single-minded.’

‘But I don’t want the woods cut down either. That’s what’s so stupid – it’s pointless taking it out on me.’

‘It’s just her way. Don’t take it personally.’

I look at Max. He’s defending his friend and I like him for it, though I’m still wary of Ella.

Out in the corridor the end-of-lunch bell rings. We get to our feet.

‘English next,’ says Max. ‘You can sit with me if you want.’

‘Thanks.’

I’ve not had a boy as a friend since preschool. I can’t wait to tell Lexie later – she’s bound to want all the details.

As we go out into the corridor, I stick close to Max because I don’t know the way to English. There’s not much room to move. A crowd of people are staring at a noticeboard on the wall. We manage to squeeze past but then Max stops dead. I almost walk straight into the back of him.

‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘She hasn’t.’

‘What?’

‘It’s my fault. I’m an idiot. I told her what your grandmother was up to and I shouldn’t have.’

‘Don’t be daft – Ella already knew,’ I say, yet something in his voice makes my stomach twist. ‘What’s everyone looking at?’

Max doesn’t answer. He grabs my sleeve and tries to rush me up the nearest stairs. But not before I see the posters. There are tons of them, A4-sized on bright green paper, stuck all over the noticeboard on top of the football team lists or whatever was there before. In big purple letters are the words:

‘SAVE DARKLING WOOD!’

And something else underneath about a meeting.

My hand covers my mouth. This must be Ella’s work. I don’t know if I’m going to laugh or cry. But despite what Max said, I
do
take it personally.

That night I go to bed early but it’s impossible to sleep. Theo, the woods, Ella’s posters, all go round and round my head, and I can’t make it stop.

On the floor below, the toilet flushes then a door clicks shut. I listen as Nell settles down for the night. Soon enough, the house falls quiet but I’m more wide awake than ever, so I get up and go to the window.

That’s when I see Flo. She’s in the garden, directly below my window, staring up. I feel a shiver of excitement. By the time I reach the garden she’s vanished, but I’ve an idea where I’ll find her.

Sure enough, Flo’s at the same spot where we last met. She’s sat cross-legged, her back against the tree trunk. I crouch down beside her. The ground’s too wet for sitting, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed.

‘You couldn’t sleep either?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she says. ‘And I won’t until the fairies are safe again and Darkling Wood has been saved.’

This feels like a dig at me for not taking her seriously.

‘I’m sorry I don’t believe in your fairy stuff,’ I say.

One look at her face and it’s clear she’s not about to let me off the hook.

‘Then you’ll have to keep trying,’ says Flo. ‘Because bad things will happen if your grandmother destroys this wood.’

‘What bad things?’

She sighs. ‘I’ve explained this already, Alice. The fairies will take revenge. Weren’t you listening?’

‘I was, but …
seriously
?’ I say. ‘Nell’s set on cutting down the trees. I don’t think she’ll change her mind if I tell her there are fairies in the wood.’

‘She doesn’t have to. You’re the one the fairies have chosen. They want
you
to believe in them. I mean it, Alice, if you don’t then their magic might not be strong enough to save the wood.’

It sounds nuts. But for some reason I feel a twinge in my stomach. I get to my feet.

‘You can’t just
make
someone believe in something that doesn’t exist,’ I say. ‘It’s ridiculous!’

‘Fairies
do
exist, that’s my point,’ says Flo. ‘They
aren’t just tiny creatures from storybooks. They make trouble for people who interfere in their world.’

‘How do you know?’ I ask.

Flo hesitates. ‘Once, a long time ago, I did something that angered the fairies.’

I look at her.

‘Like what?’

‘Never mind that now,’ she says, fiddling with her coat cuffs because she can’t meet my eye. ‘But I know how awful their revenge can be.’

Sat there under the tree she looks so pale, so lost, I almost believe her. But I still can’t make sense of what she’s saying.

‘So let me get this straight,’ I say. ‘The fairies are already working against my grandmother.’

‘Yes. They rubbed the crosses off the trees, and they’re the reason no tree surgeon is willing to do the job.’

‘But a man came yesterday. You saw him.’

Flo sighs impatiently. ‘Yes, and there will be
more
delays,
more
mischief, just you wait and see. The fairies will use all the magic they can to try to change Nell’s mind. But it might not be enough. If it isn’t and the trees come down, then they’ll be out for revenge.’

I think of Theo. My stomach twinges, harder this time. Flo sees she’s got my full attention now.

‘The fairies should be able to stop your grandmother before it’s too late. But that’ll depend on you, Alice.’

I wish she’d stop saying that.

‘I just don’t see why it has to be me,’ I say.

Flo shrugs. She doesn’t seem to know either. ‘You need to believe in fairies, Alice. If you do then their magic is more likely to succeed. If you don’t, then … well, I don’t know what we’ll do.’

Flo sees how confused I am. Getting to her feet, she points to a place about six feet up the tree.

‘That is a fairy door.’

Now I laugh. Just once. Then cough to cover it up when I see Flo looking cross.

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Honestly, how do you know all this stuff?’

‘A fairy expert once told me.’

‘A
fairy expert
?’

Flo frowns at me. ‘Will you please listen?’

‘Sorry,’ I say again.

She takes a deep breath. ‘Look at where the trunk splits in two. It forms a gap, a space. See it?’

I nod.

‘Good. Now, do you see how, just a few feet higher up, the trunk comes back together again?’

‘Yes.’ Where the trunk splits it forms an oblong
hole in the tree. It’s possible to see right through to the other side.

‘That space is a fairy door,’ says Flo.

‘A
fairy door
?’

She gives me a pained look. ‘Oh, do stop repeating everything I say.’

‘Sorry,’ I say, yet again. It’s probably easier just to play along. ‘So, how does it work?’

‘A fairy door is a very magical place. It’s a boundary between our world and theirs.’ She beckons me over. ‘Come and have a look.’

The bottom of the fairy door is above the top of my head. I have to stand on my highest tiptoes and pull myself up with my hands to look through it.

‘What do you see?’ Flo asks.

‘Um … trees … dead leaves … the woods. Why, what am I looking for?’

‘Fairies, obviously.’ She’s getting grumpy again. ‘Think of it as a window rather than a door. Look through it, concentrate a little and you might see fairies.’


I am
looking, but I can’t see anything.’

Flo sighs. ‘All right. You can stop now. It’s probably too soon.’

I’m about to ask what she means when my left hand, still gripping the branch, finds a dip in the wood.
Something’s stuffed inside it. As I touch it, it crackles. What I take out is a piece of paper.

‘Is it yours?’ I ask, turning to Flo.

She shakes her head.

The paper is folded over. It’s thick. Good quality. As I open it, I see five words. The letters are black. Capitals. Written so big they fill the page.

‘PLEASE KEEP MY BROTHER SAFE.’

I fold it back up again so I don’t have to look at it.

‘Did you write this?’ I ask. ‘How do you even
know
about Theo?’

‘But I didn’t write it, I promise,’ says Flo. ‘Perhaps it was the fairies. Their magic is especially strong in this tree – it’s a beech tree, you see, and beeches have special properties.’

‘How’s that got
anything
to do with my brother?’ I say. My voice shakes with anger.

Flo tries to take my hand, but I snatch it away. I don’t want any of this to be about Theo. I don’t even want to talk about him right now. It scares me. I screw up the piece of paper and stuff it back in the tree.

‘I’m sorry Flo, but this is stupid. I don’t believe any of this. I … just … can’t.’

Flo nods. Takes a step away from me. She’s crying now, which makes me feel bad.

‘I’m sorry too,’ she says. ‘I don’t think you quite realise how awful this could become. If your grandmother cuts down this wood then the fairies will …’

‘I can’t listen to this, Flo,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘My brother is being cared for by doctors in a top London hospital.
Fairies
have got nothing to do with it.’

‘Not yet,’ she says.

I stare at her. I can’t think how to reply.

‘Goodbye, Flo,’ I say.

I’ve had enough.

*

Nell’s waiting for me in the kitchen.

‘Well?’ she says.

‘Well what?’

‘Don’t take that tone with me,’ she says.

I wonder if she’s about to slap me. She doesn’t; she locks the back door and puts the key in her pyjama pocket.

‘Let’s start again, shall we?’ she says.

I fold my arms.

‘Borage woke me,’ she says. ‘He was whining at my
bedroom door because
someone
had been downstairs and let him out of the kitchen.’

‘Oh.’ I feel my face go red. ‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘Your shoes were gone too,’ she says. ‘And your coat. Where have you been, Alice?’

‘Why?’

‘I won’t have this!’ she says.

‘Won’t have what?’ I know I’m being lippy but I’m angry too.

‘This wandering about like you own the place. First I catch you poking about upstairs, now you’re going off in the middle of the night. It’s got to stop!’

‘I was only in the woods.’

‘Doing what exactly?’

I look at my feet. ‘Nothing.’


Nothing
?’

‘All right, I couldn’t sleep so I went and had a look at that tree.’

‘Which tree?’

‘The one …’ I hesitate because this is going to sound nuts, ‘… with the fairy door …’

Nell leans on the table like she’s dizzy. ‘Who told you about that tree?’

I don’t answer.

But I’ve landed myself in it now because Flo’s not
allowed in the wood and it was my job to tell her. Nell doesn’t wait for me to speak. She starts shouting inches from my face.

‘Did you climb it?’

‘Of course not! Why
would
I?’

‘Because if I think for one second you’ve been climbing trees, you’ll stay in your room for the next MONTH, do you hear me?’

‘I won’t be here that long,’ I mutter.

She’s breathing fast. She won’t look at me.

‘Bed!’ she says, pointing to the door. ‘And that’s an order.’

*

Up in my room, I try to phone Mum. If by some miracle I get a signal, I’ll beg her to take me home. But my phone’s completely dead and when I search my stuff, I realise I’ve not packed the charger. I climb into bed and cry myself empty. No one here can make it better – not Flo, not Nell, not the trees. The people I love most are two hours away by car, but it might as well be another country. Stuck here I can’t do anything except wait. And hope. Though it seems I’m not much good at either.

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