Authors: Emma Carroll
Thursday 14th November 1918
I’ve come to bed early for I’ve lots to tell you, though I have hardly enough ink to write it all down.
You’ll remember Mama’s been wanting Papa to take up a hobby. Well, he’s chosen photography. I don’t know about you, Alfred, but I’ve only ever seen a camera at school when Mrs Burgess made us line up by the front wall and smile for a man who ducked his head under a blanket to take the picture.
Papa’s camera is much smaller. It’s called a ‘Midg’ and is a black boxy shape about the size of a satchel. There’s a lens at the front, and the back opens like a door. It’s a surprisingly simple-looking gadget.
Anyhow, today – after much pleading – I was allowed downstairs to sit in the library with Papa. I’d hoped we might talk some more about this Chime Child business, but alas he was busy developing pictures. Strange bottles and trays of liquid covered every available surface. It was as if our library was now a laboratory, and our Papa a mad scientist! I think the title ‘Dr Waterhouse’ would rather suit him, don’t you?
Truly, Alfred, it was fascinating to watch him at work. Slowly, but surely, little shadowy shapes appeared on the
paper, and then Papa pegged each piece onto a sort of clothes line to dry.
We waited. And waited some more. Then Papa checked his pictures and got cross (his temper is very short these days) because they’d not developed properly after all.
Well, I didn’t care to stay after that. But the fire in the drawing room hadn’t yet been laid, and I couldn’t bear to go back upstairs. Pulling on my coat, I went to the woods. And there, under our special beech tree, I soon forgot Papa’s short temper and his stupid pictures.
Last time you were home, we lay at this very spot and stared up at the sun until our eyes went funny, didn’t we? Well, there was no sun today. If you’d been here we’d have climbed up to the special O-shaped place where the trunk splits in two. But you weren’t here, Alfred, and without you everything feels so difficult.
So I made do with climbing to the lowest branch, and gazed out over Glossop’s meadow. At some point, I happened to look down.
At the foot of the tree, the grass was moving. I suspected a rabbit, maybe a fox, but no animal emerged and yet the grass kept twitching. How odd it sounds! Well, prepare yourself. It gets odder still. Even writing of it makes my heart skip a beat.
As suddenly as it started, the grass went very still.
Then, before my eyes, little figures began to emerge from the undergrowth – I counted ten in total. None was taller than a foot in height. Just like the ones I’d seen before, they looked as human as you or I, only much, much smaller. Some had pale skin, some had dark, yet they all wore the same garment – a pale green tunic made of thin, gauzy stuff, which caught the light as they moved.
And move they did, rushing from one tree to the next. It was like watching ants at work, or bees in a hive. And how their tiny wings fluttered, just like a butterfly’s!
They knew I was watching them. A few dipped their heads at me in a kind of greeting. Another flew up to hover at my feet, inspecting me just as I’d inspected them. All the time I barely moved. Indeed, I held my breath for such long intervals my lungs felt ready to burst!
Eventually, the sky grew dark and I knew it must be near teatime. The little people faded from sight until all that remained was ten perfect circles of flattened grass.
When I slid down from the tree, I’d grown stiff and very cold. And yet in all other respects, I felt very well. For the first time in ages, it seemed as if nothing was missing – not even you, Alfred. I felt COMPLETE.
Back home, I spoke to Mrs Cotter of what I’d seen. You’ll remember how she is with old sayings and superstitions so I didn’t suppose she’d think me queer. She said she’d never seen
any creatures in the wood, unless I meant squirrels and rabbits, and she’d seen plenty of both.
Yet there are such things as fairies, Alfred. And despite what people think, it appears they live in our wood.
Your very excited sister.
FRIDAY 15 NOVEMBER
At breakfast we don’t speak, which makes things easier. There’s a plan in my head that’s growing so fast I can’t concentrate on anything. I’m spilling milk, dropping sugar, fumbling about in the cutlery drawer. It’s like I’ve got sausages for fingers. As Nell makes coffee, I slip Borage my toast because I can’t eat a thing.
Eventually I break the silence.
‘Can I have some lunch money, please?’
‘You must have a hole in your pocket, young lady. Didn’t I give you five pounds yesterday?’
She did. It’s still in my purse. The lie makes my face burn. But she’s too busy picking papers up off the table to notice.
‘Over there,’ Nell says, waving vaguely at the dresser. ‘In the cake tin.’
Once she’s left the room, I get the cake tin down. Inside is a wad of notes – easily enough to get to London – but taking it feels wrong. So I tell myself I’m doing this for Theo. I’ve had enough of fairies and trees and bad magic. I just want to make sure my little brother is all right. Dad might not want to visit him, but I really do. And I promise myself I’ll pay Nell back when I can.
The school bus is packed as usual. I make a beeline for the back seats, where the older people who go to college sit, because today I’m going to ride with them all the way into town. Some of the Ferndean kids turn round in their seats like they can’t believe what I’m doing. There’s one free place at the back, though someone’s bag is on it. As the bus lurches forwards, I trip down the aisle. The older kids laugh. Right now, I’d happily die of embarrassment.
‘Oh let her sit down, Dan!’ someone says.
There’s much eye rolling, but the boy’s clearly kinder than Ella because he does move his bag.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
I shrink into the seat, hugging my bag with Theo’s
card safe inside it. The older kids soon forget I’m here. They’re talking about a TV show I’ve never heard of. Once I’ve checked my purse is still in my pocket, I try to breathe normally again.
Sixteen minutes later, we reach Ferndean High. The bus swings into the driveway and stops. The kids down the front get off. I shrink further into my seat. The older kids keep talking. I can’t believe I’m about to skip school. I’d never do something this daring at home.
Then, just as the bus doors shut, the boy next to me turns round.
‘Hey,’ he says, looking at my blazer. ‘Shouldn’t you be …?’
More faces peer round my seat. I hug my bag even tighter to my chest. They’re going to tell. I know they are. I bite my lip.
‘Reckon we’ve got a skiver here,’ a girl with a silver nose stud says, and suddenly they’re all patting me on the shoulder like I’ve just scored a goal.
‘Respect,’ says the boy next to me. He raises his hand so we do a clumsy high-five. It makes me feel stupidly chuffed.
‘Your secret’s safe with us,’ says the nose stud girl, and offers me some gum.
I take it. The bus moves on. So far so good.
We join a main road. The traffic’s heavy so we slow right down. It seems to take forever. Finally we stop alongside a grey building, where hundreds of students are hanging around outside on the pavement.
‘Westway College, ladies and gents,’ says the driver.
The older kids groan and stand up super-slowly. All I’ve got to do now is sneak past the driver. Once I’m off, I’ll find the station. It should be easy.
But no one’s shifting. They’re all bickering about who’s left crisp packets on the floor. The driver joins in; it’s a different one today. She gets up from her seat and comes down the aisle. One minute she’s talking litter, the next her eyes fall on me. I’m the only one here in school uniform.
‘Hang on,’ she says. ‘You were meant to get off at Ferndean.’
It goes silent. Everyone’s looking at me. My heart starts to race.
‘Not today,’ I say, which isn’t exactly a lie.
‘Got a note, have you?’
I haven’t. Not even a pretend one.
‘Excuse me.’ I push past her before she can blink. The big kids cheer me on. It feels good. I can do this.
Out on the pavement, I’m surrounded by students hugging folders to their chests. The bus driver shouts
something, but no one takes any notice. There’s safety in numbers, I think, and stay hovering in the crowd until the bus finally pulls away from the kerb. Only then do I start walking. I’ve not the foggiest where the station is, but there’s a shop selling newspapers on the corner of the street. So I go in to ask.
The woman behind the counter thinks I’m bunking, I can tell. But she points out where the station is and mentions a shortcut through the park. I’m nervous again now. Gut-churning, sweaty-hands nervous. But as I go through the park, I find I’m noticing the trees.
Oak, ash, beech
. A few days ago I didn’t know one tree from another.
The park ends at a pair of tall green gates. Up ahead I see traffic lights. More cars, buses, lorries. And there’s a road sign with a symbol on it, that red one with white lines. My stomach does a flip. It means I’m nearly there.
Minutes later, I’m at the station. The glass doors close behind me and I walk along a passage that runs underground. It’s echoey and smells like old toilets. There are people everywhere, carrying bags, dragging those wheelie suitcases, drinking takeaway coffee. I check my purse is still in my coat pocket and head for the platform.
There’s a bing-bong on the Tannoy, then a voice: ‘The next train to arrive at platform four is the nine twenty-five to …’
I don’t hear the rest. There’s a great whooshing sound, a screech of brakes and the stink of hot rubber. People swarm around me. I’m jammed up against someone’s bag, someone’s pushchair. I look for the ticket machine but I can’t see a thing. The crowd shuffles forwards, taking me with it. I try to turn round but can’t move.
Then somehow I’m inside the train. There are people still piling on behind me. Out on the platform, a whistle blows. The doors hiss shut. I’m going somewhere but I’ve no idea where.
The train gets up speed. I don’t have a ticket. I don’t know where I’m heading. And I’m sure it’s obvious as I loiter near the luggage rack, sweating. I’d stick out less if I sat down in a seat. So I find somewhere quiet in a nearby carriage. There’s an old lady doing a crossword sat across the aisle. She looks like a safe person to speak to.
‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Is this the train for London?’
She nods. ‘Just one stop at Reading.’
I shut my eyes in relief.
We go through a tunnel that makes my ears pop, then over miles and miles of flat, flooded fields. Theo would love to be here right now. This window seat is perfect for playing ‘count the crows’.
First one to spot a hundred crows is the winner.
We’ve played it on so many journeys. It’s a Campbell family tradition. The winner gets the best flavour
crisps from the multipack for lunch, which we all know are cheese and onion.
I don’t hear the carriage door open. When I look round there’s a man in a dark blue suit asking to see tickets. If I’m nice and polite he’ll let me buy one now, won’t he? I didn’t mean to get caught in the crowds. Reaching into my coat pocket, my hand freezes. An awful sinking feeling hits me.
Oh no. Please. No.
I check the other pocket. My purse was here! I double-check again. Check the other pocket. Check my bag.
The ticket man reaches me.
‘I need to buy a ticket.’ By now I’m hot to the tips of my ears. ‘But I can’t find my purse.’
‘Is that so?’ says the ticket man, like he’s heard the excuse hundreds of times.
I pat my pockets frantically as if it’ll make my purse reappear. The ticket man stares down at me. I take a gulp of air. This is all going wrong.
‘Look, I’m not a criminal,’ I say. ‘I’m just going to see my brother.’
‘Not without a ticket, you’re not.’
He says I have to get off at the next stop. There’s a fine to pay too. And he wants my name and address, though it’s got to go on a special form.
‘They’re at the front of the train,’ the man says. ‘You’d better come with me.’
I get up. People are looking at me now, which makes me go even redder. We walk down the aisle, through the sliding doors and into the next carriage. A few passengers glance up as we pass but I keep my eyes firmly on the ticket man’s back.
Then, as we go into another carriage, someone puts out a hand. The ticket man stops.
‘Could you tell me which train …’
I don’t hear the rest. Just behind me on the other side of the doors is the toilet. There’s a sign on it saying ‘Out of order’. It’s my chance. I need to be brave. Tell myself I can do this, that getting to London is easier –
– than starting at a new school.
Any moment, the ticket inspector will stop talking and start walking again. It’s now or never. I take a step back. Then another. I’m through the sliding doors. The ticket man hasn’t even turned round.
Inside, the toilet stinks. There’s wet tissue all over the floor and the sink’s blocked. I lock the door quick. Within seconds, someone’s banging on it. I go very still. The handle wiggles.
‘You in there?’ says the ticket man.
I hold my breath.
It goes quiet. He must’ve gone. Lid down, I crouch on top of the loo seat. And wait. Near Reading the train starts to slow. It stops, the carriage doors open, and there’s thumping and rustling as luggage is put in the racks. Someone tries the door again. Then I hear the ticket man’s voice.
‘Well, she’s not in there now. She must’ve got off here and given us the slip.’
I just hope this means he’ll leave me alone.
The train judders. And then we’re away again.
Next stop London.
Not long to go. I try not to think of Nell. School will have phoned by now to say I’m absent and she’ll be fuming. And I bet she’s called Mum, who’ll be all stressed out. I get a stab of guilt. Mum doesn’t need anything extra to worry about. Perhaps this wasn’t such a brilliant idea.
Too late now. The train makes that
sound as we begin to slow down. Standing on the wet floor, I get ready to run.
The Tannoy comes on.
‘We are now approaching Paddington …’
I shift my bag onto my shoulder. The train squeals to a halt. I ease the toilet door open.
Out on the platform, everyone’s walking towards a barrier. A ticket barrier. I hesitate. Someone bumps into me.
‘Watch it, love,’ the person says.
At the barrier, the crowd thins into three lines. I join the longest because I need time to work out what to do. There must be a way to get through without a ticket. The queue shuffles forward.
I’m just four people away from the barrier now. The floor’s swept clean – no sign of any dropped tickets.
Three people away.
I’m jerked backwards. I try to turn round but the ticket man’s gripping my bag. He’s almost pulled me off my feet. Instinctively I lunge forward. Something rips. The ticket man still holds on to me. And then, quite suddenly, he lets go.
I don’t think: I run, scrambling over the ticket barrier like it’s life or death. Once I’m clear of the station, I slow down. The remains of my bag strap hangs off my left shoulder. There’s no bag attached; I suppose the ticket man’s still holding onto it.
If Lexie were here, we’d die laughing. But I’m on my own with no money, no phone and no idea how
to reach the hospital. It’s not even remotely funny. Nor’s the fact that Theo’s card is still inside my bag. I’ve come all this way to give it to him, and now I can’t even do that.
To make things worse, it’s started to rain. A red bus goes by, then a taxi, then more taxis. Some have their lights on, which means they’re for hire – not that it’s any good to me. Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I walk faster. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction but it makes me feel like I’m not giving up. After all, I’ve made it this far. I’m here in London. Theo can’t be far away.
At the end of the road, there’s one of those big maps of the area done for tourists. I’m so glad I want to throw my arms right round it; a bit of luck at last! Finding the ‘You Are Here’ dot, I then work out where the hospital is. It looks like a long walk down a straight main road.
A few turnings and I’m on that road. It’s noisy and smelly. Greasy-looking pigeons swoop around the traffic. Everywhere is grey: grey tarmac, grey buildings, grey sky. It looks strange after Darkling Wood, where everything is green or brown or blue.
At another of the tourist maps, I check my bearings. I’m still on track. The rain’s turned into that sharp,
sleety stuff that stings your skin. But it doesn’t matter because it’s not far to go now and I can’t wait to see Mum and Theo’s faces when they see me. I get a fizz of excitement in my tummy. Or it might be nerves. Head down against the rain, I walk faster. The next turning should be it.