Authors: Siobhan Dowd
Tags: #Ages 8 and up
It was a rattling old-style tube-train that screeched and jerked. We held tight to the bar as it took the sharper bends. Sloane Square. Victoria. Blackfriars. Tower Hill. Aldgate East. The tube destination said UPMINSTER. Were we going all the way out there? After Stepney Green Kat stooped into a crouch, like a tiger about to spring, and dragged me into a stooping position too. ‘He’s getting up,’ she hissed. The train braked. It pulled into Mile End and halted. There was a pause. Seconds ticked by. Everybody waited silently. A man opposite tapped his foot on the floor. With a
, the doors opened. Kat grabbed me and flew off the train, almost knocking over a gentleman trying to board.
’ she muttered, pulling me after her by the sleeve of my sweatshirt. She ran behind a chocolate machine.
The strange man was walking briskly down the platform and up a flight of steps.
’ said Kat.
We emerged from behind the chocolate machine.
‘Don’t run,’ Kat said. ‘Saunter.’
‘Saunter,’ I said. I’m not good at sauntering, but I did my best. We sauntered down the platform, up the steps, through the ticket barrier, to the street entrance.
Kat spotted him across the street. We crossed too and did some more sauntering behind him. He never looked round. His hands were in his jacket pockets and his head was down as if he was having a long train of thought. He paused at a corner by some traffic lights and outside a pub called the Falcon Arms. We stopped too. After a moment he went inside the pub.
It was a large, grubby building with big bay windows and no curtains. It had a drooping white banner across the entrance saying OPEN ALL DAY. Above it swung a sign showing a picture of a falcon perched on a branch with a mouse in its beak. You could tell from the way the mouse’s tail was flying behind that in the picture there was a strong wind, maybe gale-force seven.
‘What now, Kat?’ I said.
‘We wait,’ Kat said.
‘Wait,’ I said.
‘As long as it takes.’
‘You know what Dad says.’
‘Pubs are black holes. People go in there and never come out again.’
‘He’s only joking, Ted.’
We stood on the street corner for five minutes. Kat got restless. The traffic streamed by. Kat said she felt like a sore thumb. Her thumb looked fine to me. I was just about to ask what she meant when she said, ‘I’m gonna sneak up to that pub window, Ted. You stay put.’
I watched her sneak forward. She approached the bay window like a double-o agent on a mission to save the world. ‘He’s propping up the bar,’
she hissed over to me. I imagined a bar on wobbly trestles, liable to fall down at any moment. She took another look inside. ‘He’s got a long glass of dark brown stuff in front of him and he’s hardly touched it,’ she reported. ‘He’s watching TV on a big screen.’
She rejoined me. ‘He could be in there for some time. Let’s cross and wait by the television shop near that bus stop. We can watch TV while we wait and people will just think we’re waiting for the bus.’
We crossed over by the lights and stared at the TV images in the window: people chatting, laughing, shaking their heads – a mid-afternoon game show. We could see but not hear them. We had eighteen different TVs to choose from but they were all tuned to the same channel. The game show ended and the news came on. Eighteen screens of soldiers in a foreign country, walking up dusty streets with heavy guns. Eighteen screens of African children with flies around their large eyes and no clothes on. You could tell they were starving. Eighteen screens of the prime minister giving a speech at a convention, his two hands shaking themselves out over the podium as he spoke, a bit like mine.
Then. Eighteen screens of our living room. Our sofa, times eighteen, Rashid, times eighteen, Aunt Gloria, with her white sweater, her orange lips and pale cheeks, times eighteen. She was talking. The cameras went in close. I could see the word.
. Kat gasped.
‘Auntie Glo!’ Kat squeaked. ‘Our living room! On TV!’
‘I forgot to tell you,’ I said.
‘You forgot to tell me?’
‘They called in the press.’
‘They came in a big van.’
‘They came while I was gone?’
‘And you didn’t tell me?’
Kat rolled her eyes.
‘I didn’t have a chance, Kat. Not with all those motorbikes.’
We watched as the eighteen shots of our living room switched to eighteen pictures of Salim – the one of him in his school blazer looking neither happy nor sad – then to a telephone number for contacting the police.
The story ended. The next was about the latest mission to Mars and showed a robotic probe collecting specimens from the planet crust. Kat stared at it without seeing it, chanting, ‘Our living room. On TV,’ to herself. I was interested in the pictures of the bare landscape, wondering what the Martian weather conditions were like and if life might ever have existed there. Neither of us noticed until it was too late. A firm hand grasped my shoulder. And Kat’s. I turned round. So did Kat. We were face to face with the strange man.
He smelled of alcohol. His eyes were slits. His lips were pressed up tight. I knew what that meant. Anger. Extreme.
His grip hardened on my shoulder so it hurt. ‘You again,’ he hissed.
The Road to Nowhere
Kat said nothing. I said nothing.
His grip relaxed. He took a step back. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘You followed me, didn’t you? You followed me here from the scooter show.’
‘That missing kid. The one on the news. Is
who you’re looking for?’
‘Yes,’ said Kat. ‘He’s not just some
. He’s our cousin, Salim.’
‘Why d’you think I had anything to do with it?’
‘Because it was right after you gave us that ticket. Salim went up the London Eye. But he never came down again.’
The strange man looked at us with one side of his lip up, the other down, his nose scrunched up, his eyebrows bunched together. ‘Crazy kids!’ he said. But he wasn’t looking at us. He had his eyes raised upwards as if we were floating above him in the air.
‘We’re not crazy,’ Kat said.
He looked down again and gave a strange kind of smile. ‘This cousin of yours – he went up the Eye and never came down, you say?’
‘Kids don’t just vanish into thin air.’
Kat sighed. ‘That’s what the police said.’
The man’s eyes shifted round from her face to mine.
‘It’s serious,’ Kat said. ‘The police are looking for him. And now it’s all over the TV.’
‘I don’t know anything about it. I told you before.’
‘Did you really just buy a ticket – and not decide to use it?’
The man looked around and backed away. ‘It wasn’t exactly like that,’ he said. A bus crammed with passengers had pulled up at the nearby stop. A woman with a buggy struggled to get on. The driver stared at her with his lips turned down. The strange man glanced at the bus, then looked at us.
‘It was this bird,’ he said, his words speeding up. The bus revved up. The wheels of the buggy spun as the woman seesawed it onto the platform. My hand was shaking itself out.
‘This bird in the queue. That’s who I got the ticket from.’
‘A bird?’ I said, thinking of crows and pigeons.
‘A dark-haired chick. Nobody I knew. I was just passing. She called me over and said how her boyfriend hadn’t shown and she didn’t want to waste his ticket but she didn’t want to lose her boarding slot either. So she asked me to go over and give it to you.’
‘Why us?’ said Kat.
The man shrugged. ‘Dunno. You were kids, right at the back of queue, I guess. She took pity on you.’
Suddenly he dashed over to the bus just before the driver shut the doors. ‘It’s her you need to talk to. Not me. If you can find her.’ Then he gave a strange laugh.
‘Wait!’ screamed Kat. ‘Don’t go! Wait!’ She ran after him, but the cross-looking driver shook his head at her and shouted, ‘Full up!’ and shut the doors in her face.
The strange man raised his palms upwards as well as his hands and the bus jerked forward and gathered speed down the high street.
‘Hell!’ said Kat.
‘Hrumm,’ I said.
‘Shut up!’ Kat shouted.
The bus, along with the strange man, disappeared under a bridge. Kat clenched her fists and banged them on her thighs like she was a boxer fighting herself. Then she kicked a Coke can on the pavement into the gutter. ‘The road to nowhere,’ she said in a voice so loud that passers-by stared at us. ‘One great big bloody waste of time.’ On the word
, she crushed her boot down on the Coke can. ‘Road to bloody nowhere.’ The boot stamped up and down. The Coke can went pancake-flat. ‘Nowhere.’ She burst into tears. ‘And which way’s the bloody tube? I’ve bloody well forgotten.’
Tornado Touchdown Time
Somehow Kat found the way back to the tube. She stomped up the high street with me trying to keep up and my hand flapping and then she asked directions from a man who was painting a railing and he pointed a finger and she stomped on, acting as if I wasn’t there, and I kept up after her until we got to the tube.
We travelled the long way home in silence. Then we walked back up the main road and into our street and she still said nothing but she let me walk beside her now and her lips were turned down, which meant she was sad more than angry.
Outside our house she stopped and said, ‘We’re for it, Ted. Our hair isn’t even wet.’
I touched my hair, confused. Then I remembered. We were supposed to have gone swimming.
‘Maybe we can just sneak in,’ Kat whispered. She got out her key and was about to put it in the lock when the door flew open.
Mum stood in front of us, barring the way. Her hair was messy and her eyes were as wide as volcano craters. She dangled our swimming gear before our eyes: Kat’s bikini, two sets of goggles, my trunks. She spluttered, dropped the lot, hugged us, cuffed Kat round the ear and screeched, ‘You disobedient, lying, cheeky chit – and as for you, Ted, I’m shocked, I don’t know what got into you, writing that lie about going swimming, I’ve been worried witless, I’ve—’
Kat walked past her with her hands over her ears.
‘Don’t you swan off like that until I’ve finished with you!’
I hovered in the doorway, frowning and thinking of swans gliding away in the pond in the park. Then I mumbled, ‘Sorry, Mum, sorry, Mum,’ because I knew she was angry, but she didn’t hear me. I picked up the things she’d dropped. She yanked me into the house and slammed the door.
‘That Mrs Hopper across the road’s peering out again. God only knows what the neighbours think!
TV crews, police cars, I’ve just about had it, Gloria’s gone mental, you two vanish. Have you any idea how I’ve been feeling?’
Kat laughed. She kicked the skirting board and hooted. ‘The
,’ she screeched. She doubled over. ‘Typical grown-up crap.’ Her voice went up an octave and she crooned, ‘
God only knows what the
Is that all you care about, Mum? What the neighbours think? We’ve been trying to help. Trying to find Salim. But you’re not interested, are you? You don’t want to know what we think, do you? All you care about is
what the neighbours think
. Salim might be dead for all you care.’
Mum stood eyeball to eyeball with Kat. I realized they were exactly the same height.
‘Don’t you dare say that – don’t you dare . . .’
Mum’s hand darted up as if to hit Kat hard on the cheek, but it froze about a centimetre off target. Her voice trailed off.
The temperature in the hallway seemed to plummet to minus thirty degrees.
Kat stared at Mum, her eyes round. ‘Go on, hit me,’ she hissed.
Mum shook her head and I could see tears falling down her cheek. Her hand fell to her side. I stepped forward. ‘Mum? Kat?’ I said, but they paid no attention.
Then Kat’s lips started to wobble. She pushed Mum out of her way, wailing, ‘
I hate you, I hate you.
She ran upstairs, tripping halfway.
Hate you, hate
A bedroom door slammed. Then something upstairs crashed.
It was Tornado Touchdown Time, or T x 3, in our house. This is my way of describing what it’s like when people have really bad arguments and it is the worst place to be in all the world.
Mum slumped on the bottom stair, head down in her hands. Her shoulders heaved and she made a strange noise.
I’d never seen Mum like that before.
‘Oh no,’ she moaned, rocking herself. ‘Is there no end to this?’ I wasn’t sure whom she was talking to and looked around. I was the only one there. Which meant she was talking either to me or to God. ‘Oh God, oh God,’ she said.
So it was God, not me, and I was free to go. I decided to check out the weather in the back garden.
I walked fast through the kitchen and out into the back garden, my hand flapping.
synopsis at eighteen hundred issued by the Met Office:
Fitzroy, mainly northerly, four or five, becoming
variable, thundery showers
. . . I did my pacing, counting the strides it took to get from one side of the back garden to the other. Twelve-and-a-half strides long, seven across. I ducked under the line of dry clothes, grabbing onto a sheet. I left a grubby stain. My fingers were still black from going through the phone book earlier.
Eye of the Needle Solutions.
That’s what I needed. A solution for the impossible. How you get through a needle point. How you disappear from a sealed pod. I thought of the girl on the motorbike, the pink sleeve in the photo, I thought of Dad’s razor blade, I thought of the strange man and the lady saying how he was fired and him saying we should find the ‘bird’ with the dark hair, and I thought of what Aunt Gloria had said earlier. ‘If brains alone could bring Salim back, yours would do it, Ted.’
I held my hands over my ears and shook out my head. My brain felt like it was overheated, going into melt-down. I paced the garden and recounted my steps, only this time the number came out wrong –