Authors: Siobhan Dowd
Tags: #Ages 8 and up
‘Good thing we’re not on the Eye now,’ Dad said. Lightning flashed. Ten seconds later it thundered again.
‘Dad,’ I said, ‘the storm is three kilometres away. Even if it was nearer, your chance of being struck is approximately one in three million.’
We dashed for the underground station. By now it was raining cats and dogs (which is the strangest expression of all, but my personal favourite. When I imagine cats and dogs coming from the sky, I see white fluffy kittens and Dalmatian puppies). Then it turned to hail. The lightning and thunder were four seconds apart.
‘Twelve hundred metres,’ I said, ‘and it is sheet lightning, which means—’
‘Shut up, Ted,’ Kat said. She had her jacket collar up over her head. ‘I’m soaked.’
Dad looked at his watch. ‘Three o’clock. No calls on the mobile. So no news.’
‘Let’s go home,’ Kat said. ‘It’s too wet to stay out.’
‘OK, Kat. We’ll call it a day.’
We went down into the underground. By the time we were back up on street level the storm had moved away. The rain had stopped. The pavements ran with moisture.
‘It was a very localized storm system,’ I said.
‘Dad,’ said Kat, ‘d’you mind if we stop by the shopping centre again? I want to get a present for Auntie Glo. Some bath oil to help her relax.’
Dad’s lips went right up. ‘That’s a great idea, Kitten.’
We waited as Kat went into the chemist’s again. She emerged with a plastic bottle of syrupy, raspberry-coloured liquid. Dad unscrewed the lid, smelled it and crinkled up his nose. This meant that he didn’t think it smelled pleasant, but what he said was, ‘That should do nicely.’
What he didn’t see, but I did, was the top of a wallet of newly processed photos, bulging from the pocket of Kat’s fur-collared jacket.
The Ninth Theory
When we got home, there was a smog in the living room caused by Aunt Gloria’s
cigarettes. A smog is technically a mixture of smoke, fog and chemical fumes but this was a mixture of smoke, smoke and more smoke. Mum said there had been no news but we already knew this because Dad’s mobile phone had not rung. I tried to tell her and Aunt Gloria about our trip to the London Eye but Kat started coughing and Dad said we had had a very pleasant walk by the river. Then Kat gave Aunt Gloria the bath oil, saying it was a present from both her and me, and when Aunt Gloria looked at the label, her lips went up. She said thank you, Kat, and thank you, Ted, and added that it was the kind she’d used when Salim was little.
‘The little devil that he was,’ she said. ‘Forever pinching it. He liked the bubbles. Blowing them up. Giggling when they burst.’
Then she started crying and Mum told Kat and me to go upstairs.
Upstairs, Kat got out the wallet of photos and flicked through them at the rate of one a second. I was very excited to see them but she wouldn’t let me. In eighteen seconds eighteen pictures of our back garden and the washing and the shed were all over my duvet cover. When she got to the first eighteen shots, the ones taken the morning of Salim’s disappearance, she slowed down. I tried to look over her shoulder but she jerked away. She went through them twice, then dropped them on the bed as if she was no longer interested. I picked them up and looked.
‘Just a set of stupid touristy shots,’ Kat said. ‘Like any others.’
There were scenes of the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Bridge and the Eye, from different angles. The best shot was the one Salim had taken of Kat and me on the Jubilee footbridge. It had Kat’s face and mine close together and behind us was half of the Eye and some bridge and river and sky. Kat was smiling. My head was off to one side and my eyes were looking upwards as if I was thinking. Kat was taller than me. My head ended where her chin began.
The last shot was the one I had taken. It had gone wrong. Instead of the London Eye, I had snapped some legs and headless bodies of the people near where we’d been queuing. I arranged the photos on my desk alongside the souvenir shot of the capsule in which we thought Salim had been a passenger and the list of theories.
We sat in silence.
Kat breathed out long and hard. ‘I don’t even know what I expected to find,’ she said, shuffling the pictures about. ‘I wish we’d just given Auntie Glo Salim’s camera when we first found it. Now we’ll have to explain why we
give it to her. And I bet when she sees Salim’s last photos she’ll just start crying again.’ She picked up the shot of her and me on the footbridge and threw it down again. ‘A clue? As if!’
I picked up the photo. ‘Let’s keep the photos and the camera safe in my room until Salim returns,’ I suggested.
he returns,’ Kat said, biting her lip. She shook her head and swept all the photos up into a rough pile. ‘But I agree. There’s no point upsetting Auntie Glo. You don’t have to lie, Ted. Just say nothing.’
Then Kat picked up the list of theories. ‘As for this’
– she scrunched it up and threw it in the waste-paper basket – ‘it’s beyond us, Ted.’
I watched the paper crackle softly as if it was trying to re-open itself. When the corners reappeared, I took it back out of the rubbish and smoothed it flat on the desk.
‘Forget it, Ted,’ Kat said.
I picked up a pen. ‘Let’s try a process of elimination,’ I said. The world’s most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, said that once you have eliminated all the possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. I was eager to see if we could eliminate all the theories except my favourite theory of all, which was that Salim had spontaneously combusted. This would not have been a good outcome for Aunt Gloria or for Salim, but it would mean that spontaneous combustion was a real phenomenon and my discovering this would have been an advance in science.
‘Theories one and eight can go,’ I began. ‘Today we have proved that Salim couldn’t have stayed in his capsule after it came down and he couldn’t have come out hiding under somebody’s else’s clothes.’ I crossed them out.
‘Drop it, Ted.’
‘That leaves six.’
‘While you’re at it you can cross off the one about spontaneous explosion or whatever it’s called.’
‘Theory number five?’
‘Yeah. And the time-warp one.’
‘Number seven?’ My pencil hovered over the list.
‘But supposing we eliminate all the others and—’
‘Oh, grow up, Ted.’
I wished Kat could spontaneously combust there and then. But she didn’t. Her eyebrows came close together and her lips were right down and then a tear came rolling out of her left eye and down her nose. I thought of something I hadn’t thought of before. Very slowly I drew a wavy line through theories five and seven even though a strange feeling went up my oesophagus.
‘Done,’ I said.
Kat picked up the list as if she was interested again. She brushed off the tear. ‘That leaves four theories,’ she said. ‘Two, three, four and six.’
‘And nine,’ I said, remembering.
‘The ninth theory is the one I was going to tell you about last night,’ I reminded her. ‘When the phone rang. You never wrote it down.’
She took the pen from me. ‘You never told me what it was. Out with it, Ted. It had better be good.’
‘It is.’ I started dictating. ‘The ninth theory is that Salim never got on the Eye in the first place.’
Kat got halfway through writing the words, then stopped and said it was daft and I said it wasn’t and she said hadn’t we seen him get on and I said we had seen what we
was Salim but it was just a shadow and could have been anyone.
‘He turned and waved,’ Kat said.
‘Lots of people might have done that,’ I said. ‘Not just Salim.’
‘But what happened to Salim, then, between when we said goodbye and when he got to the top of the ramp?’
I had not considered this. ‘He might have stopped to do up his trainers and decided not to get on after all and come back down the ramp after we moved away. And then he might have looked for us but we’d vanished into the crowds. And then he might have got lost or run away or got kidnapped.’
Kat closed her eyes. ‘OK, Ted. I’m reliving the moment.’
I shut my eyes too. But all I could see was the wrong-way-round Z and a line of boys, all Salim look-alikes, smiling and waving and saying goodbye and walking to the edge of a precipice.
‘Ted,’ Kat said. I opened my eyes. ‘I have to admit it’s a clever theory.’
A good tingling feeling went from my oesophagus up to my scalp. I smiled.
‘But it’s wrong, Ted.’
I stopped smiling. ‘Wrong.’
‘I don’t expect you to understand. The boy who waved from the top of the ramp. The way he stood and looked back. The way he turned and walked on. It was Salim. I just know.’
‘You just know?’
‘It’s a body-language thing.’
The good feeling I had turned bad. ‘Body language’ is a form of communication, like speaking English or French or Chinese, but it has no words, only gestures. Humans and chimpanzees and meerkats and stingrays can read body language by instinct without having to learn it. But according to the doctors who diagnosed me, people with my kind of syndrome can’t. We have to learn it like a foreign language and this takes time.
‘You mean, you saw something about the boy who waved that I didn’t?’
‘Yes, Ted.’ Kat’s voice was soft. She put a hand on my shoulder, which made the hairs on my neck stick up. ‘Trust me. It was Salim we saw. It just was.’
I took the pencil back from Kat and crossed off what she’d written for theory nine. I crossed it out three times over. I’d thought it the best theory of all until then. Now it was dead, almost at birth. Dead as a dodo, you could say.
The Boy on the Train
Mum came in and Kat sat on the desk, on top of the photos and the theory list.
‘Hi, guys,’ Mum said.
‘Hi, Mum,’ said Kat. She swung her legs backwards and forwards and stared into space.
‘This isn’t much of a half term for you, is it?’
‘Don’t worry, Mum. We’re fine.’
Mum smiled. Then she said the police were visiting us again and we should go downstairs, in case they wanted to ask us anything. Then she went out and Kat got off the desk. She hid the theory list and the photographs in the little drawer under my desk. Then she picked up the souvenir picture and said that she’d hand it over to the police, just in case it was of some use. Then she went out of my room. I reopened the drawer. I found my favourite photo –
the one Salim had taken of Kat and me on the footbridge. It looked as if a corner of the London Eye was emerging from my shoulder. Then I put it in my book of weather systems, between cyclones and anticyclones, where it would be safe. Then I followed Kat downstairs.
Soon the police car drew up and Mum and Aunt Gloria took the same places on the sofa and Dad showed in Detective Inspector Pearce, who was on her own. She sat on the same chair as yesterday. Nobody said anything for a minute. Then Kat went up to her and offered her the souvenir photograph.
‘I’m sorry we didn’t give it to you sooner,’ Kat said.
‘I meant to yesterday, but we forgot, didn’t we, Ted?’
‘Hrumm,’ I said.
Detective Inspector Pearce took the photo and shook her head and smiled. ‘We already have that one, Kat,’ she said. ‘Along with sixty-four others. But thanks anyway.’
Aunt Gloria grabbed the photograph and peered at it. ‘What is this?’
‘It’s a picture of the people in the pod, Aunt Gloria,’ I explained. ‘The pod that—’
‘Not a trace of Salim in any of them, I’m afraid,’
Detective Inspector Pearce said. ‘Nor in the CCTV footage. I’ve been checking much of it myself. In that particular pod, a rather large gentleman –’ she leaned over and pointed to the big white-haired man in the raincoat – ‘stood in the same spot for nearly the whole ride and blocked much of the camera’s view.’
Aunt Gloria tossed the picture down on the floor near my feet. I picked it up. ‘You know what I think?’
she said. ‘I think he never went up that damn Wheel in the first place!’
‘That’s an interesting theory, Aunt Gloria,’ I said,
‘and one that I considered too, but—’
‘Ted,’ Mum said. She put a finger to her lip. That is body language even I have learned to read. It means ‘Be quiet’.
There was another silence.
Then the inspector said she had a possible lead. A boy matching Salim’s description had been seen at four o’clock yesterday afternoon by a guard at Euston Station, dodging the ticket barrier and getting on a train just a moment before the doors were locked.
‘A train? What train?’ Aunt Gloria said.
‘An inter-city between London and Manchester.’
‘Manchester? But that’s where we’d just come from. Why would Salim go back there?’
‘The boy – if it was Salim – was on his own. Unfortunately that’s where we lose sight of him. The guard on the train has no memory of him. He could have got off at any of the stops in between. But the Manchester police are checking to see if Salim is perhaps in Manchester—’
‘With his dad!’ Aunt Gloria said.
‘He is not with his father, I’m afraid. It was the first place we looked.’ The inspector produced Salim’s address book. ‘We’ve spoken to everybody you told us he was close to. His cousins Ramesh and Yasmin. Your neighbours, the Tysons. His school friend, Marcus Flood. And his old friend from primary school, Paul Burridge.’
‘None of them say they’ve heard from him since you left the day before yesterday.’
‘Hrumm,’ I said. ‘That’s—’
‘Hush, Ted,’ said Mum.
‘If Salim did go to Manchester,’ Detective Inspector Pearce said to Aunt Gloria, ‘where do you think he’d be most likely to go?’
Aunt Gloria stared into the space in front of her and then sighed. ‘I don’t think,’ she said.
‘I think the boy on the train is like the boy last night, the boy in the morgue. The boy you thought was Salim and wasn’t.’
Detective Inspector Pearce reached over and touched Aunt Gloria’s hand. ‘I’m sincerely sorry about that, Gloria. We didn’t have a proper photo ID then. We do now.’ From a brown envelope she’d been holding she took out a photo of Salim and showed it to us. ‘Your ex-husband gave us this. Would you say it’s a good likeness?’