Authors: Claire King
Tags: #General Fiction
Margot, I say, I have the darkness and it’s cloudy. We can go to Windy Hill. I don’t say it like a question because I am not feeling in a very good mood.
That’s OK, says Margot, and takes my hand.
On Windy Hill there are pine trees and poplar trees, fig trees and oaks. It smells of salt, herbs and animals’ skin and now, in summer, it smells like the earth is cooking. There are gorse bushes with yellow flowers that look like purses and smell like coconut. In between the big boulders there is lavender and rosemary, which you can chew if you are hungry.
Today there is a strong breeze that feels delicious in my hair and I stand for a while letting myself be blown and staring out at the turbines. The ground is hard and stony here and not comfortable to sit on. Even in spring, when the poplar trees throw off swirling balls of fluff that make a soft white carpet on the hill, when you would think it would be nice to sit down on it, the stones come through and leave purple-red bruises on your legs.
Out behind the wing turbines you can usually see the sea if you squint a little bit. If you use your imagination you can even see pink flamingos wading through the
on stick-legs, grazing the salty water for their food. If you come here early in the mornings you can see the sunrise, turning everything from grey to rosy.
Nothing is rosy now, though. Not blue either. The sky is low-down swirls of grey and the air is warm and heavy. We can’t stay too long, I say.
We haven’t seen good clouds for ages, says Margot. Let’s see what there is.
So even though these ones are dark and low and not very pretty, I unstick my eyes from the turbines and start to name them.
Elephant, dragonfly, house, I say.
Sausage, robot, knickers, says Margot.
Then she begins on the clouds right above her, tilting her face up so far she nearly falls over backwards.
Oh! Lie on your back, she says.
No, it’ll hurt!
Go on, just try, she says. And she lies down in the scrubby dirt.
I lie down beside her, our feet touching and the ground digging into my back, and we stare up at the gloomy sky.
By lying like this the clouds blowing fast overhead don’t look like animals any more, but monsters. In the distance there is a rumbling of very quiet thunder which makes it even worse. We lie here scaring ourselves until a giant purple-black cloud sails up, making its shadow right over us and bringing a cold wind with it that whips up the dust, sharp on to my face. But I am busy thinking. There is a strange mistiness under the cloud, as though parts of it are breaking away and flying off in the wind. I am trying to figure out what it is doing when a piece of the sky hits me between the eyes.
To begin with I think the boys have come back and are throwing peach stones at us, until I see the chunk of ice at my feet, which is unusual. I sit up and shout, Hey! But no one is there. A second one hits the top of my head, and then another smacks me on the back. Now big lumps of ice are falling all around. It starts off as a pattering, but quickly becomes a smashing and a clattering of icy stones, bouncing off the rocky hill, and my less rocky head. Where they hit my bare arms and legs it stings and burns.
Come on! says Margot, pointing at a big fir tree nearby. We dash under the umbrella of branches, pressing ourselves up against the trunk. The branches are thick and spread wide from the trunk but the ice is coming in sideways and snapping around my feet.
The sky suddenly lights up in a big flash, a crack of thunder booms and I can’t help my tears.
Don’t worry, says Margot, it won’t last long.
I don’t like it.
It will go past soon, Margot says. You saw how hard the wind is blowing.
But the sky is dark all around and so many hailstones are falling so fast that I can’t see anything beyond the tree.
Margot, I want Maman, I cry.
Hang on, Pea.
There is another flash of bright white light and a smashing like cymbals by my ears. I think about climbing up into the tree, but there are no footholds, the needles are spiky and blowing in the wind. I hug myself against it closer, pressing one ear to the scratchy bark and covering the other with my hand. Margot presses up behind me. She starts to sing.
I hear thunder! I hear thunder! Hark, don’t you? Hark, don’t you? Pitter patter raindrops, pitter patter . . . she stops without finishing the song.
Through the thinning shower of ice, a shadow appears on the path. It is moving quickly towards us, with one glowing white eye and a black coat flapping in the wind. It’s a storm-witch! I scream. But it keeps on coming and I don’t know what to do. I keep screaming as it gets closer and closer. Then I see. It is not a witch at all, but Claude, holding a coat over his head and staggering towards us, fast.
What are you doing here? I shout, because Claude belongs to the meadow not Windy Hill. But he doesn’t answer. He grabs my arm hard, pulling me away from the tree and under his coat-roof. Through panting breaths he says, Go!
The thunder seems to be all around now, the skies growling angrily as we stumble through the pelting ice across the high pasture and down a dirt track. But it is not the one that leads to our house.
It’s the wrong way! I shout, but Claude says nothing.
We are moving too fast for me to shout in his ear. I am holding on to Claude’s T-shirt and being sort of dragged along. I am not at all happy, but before I have a chance to concentrate properly on what I would rather be doing we are arriving at a big stone house. I recognise it – it is the one we saw this morning from the road. Claude is not taking us to the house, though, but towards a barn next to it. As he rattles the latch on the big wooden door, another crack of thunder shakes my feet and the sky lights up as though someone has lifted its lid off. At last the door swings open and I am shoved inside. I stand at the entrance feeling dizzy and ready to cry again.
Are you OK? Claude asks.
We nod, miserably. Although Claude is a grownup, he doesn’t seem to know what to do next. For a minute he is just standing there, panting like a dog. The hailstones are thumping down on the roof and on the wooden shutters where the windows would be. Claude throws the raincoat down on to the stone floor of the barn and turns to close the door.
Have you got any towels? I ask him.
He keeps his back to me and doesn’t answer. Then he turns and stares hard.
Could we have some towels, please? I ask again.
Claude looks around. Right at the back of the barn are some bales of hay stacked up against the wall.
Sit down over there, Pea, he says. I’ll find something. And he goes back out into the storm, slamming the door behind him.
The hay smells fusty and is scratchy on my bare legs. I tuck them up under my wet dress and wrap my arms around myself, shivering.
Let’s have a look around, while he’s gone, says Margot.
I daren’t, I say. What if he comes back? He told us to sit here.
Not me, just you, she says. I’m not scared. And she hops down from the hay to go exploring. I follow her with my eyes.
Against one wall there is a big pile of logs, stacked neatly in rows. Margot sniffs at them, but I can smell them from here. They smell like just the firewood we have at home, which is chopped-up oak trees. By the door where we came in there are two sacks of dog food, some paint tins with drippy lids, white and yellow, and a stack of black buckets. Margot looks in the buckets and shrugs. Empty.
On the other wall there is an old
by the shuttered window and lots of tools hung up on nails, just like Papa has at home: saws and knives, spades and rakes and hammers.
The hay takes up half of the other wall, and then in the space that is left, not far from where I am sitting, is a corner cluttered with big things that wouldn’t hang up on nails. Margot stops by the corner and points.
Look, Pea! Look!
There is a wheelbarrow, a ladder, some ropes and tarpaulins and right at the back there are two shiny little red bikes.
Can we ride on them? The bikes have taken my mind off the bruises coming up on my neck and back.
Claude, who has just walked back through the barn door holding towels, looks over at the bikes.
Ah, he says. Listen, we’d need to ask your maman first. He passes me a towel and I wrap it around me. He drapes another one over my head so I look like I’m getting married.
She won’t mind, says Margot.
Really, Maman won’t mind at all as long as we don’t bother her, I add.
Claude scowls at the bikes. He crouches down and brings his rained-on head close.
These things have to be done properly, he says. His voice sounds like the rumble is coming up from his tummy. These are very special bikes, you know. I don’t share them with just anybody who asks. He winks at me. Claude winks a lot. He’s very funny.
But they’re too little for you, says Margot.
And also, there are two of them and only one of you.
A very good point, says Claude. Can you ride a bike?
I don’t know, I admit.
I bet you could if you tried, he says. You look like the kind of girl who’d be particularly clever at bike-riding. Maybe I’ll teach you. Claude frowns slightly. But not today.
Why not today?
You’re all wet. You’d make the handlebars go rusty.
Merlin has come into the barn, maybe to see what the fuss is all about, and he trots over. I am wrapped in the towels, but my dress is still wet and I’m cold. I hug Merlin up against me. His tail thumps against the bale of hay. It feels cosier now. The banging on the roof has stopped and there is just a dripping noise. A bird chirrups outside the window. A blackbird, I think.
Claude scratches his head. His hair is slicked back, showing his ugly part.
Claude, what is wrong with your head?
Claude looks very surprised, as though he just saw himself in a mirror for the first time. His hand goes up to touch where the hair isn’t.
Didn’t you know? I say.
Well, yes, says Claude. But you’re the first person who ever asked me about it.
The problem with a lot of people, says Margot, is that they don’t notice the important things.
Does it hurt? I say.
Not now, no, says Claude.
So how did it get like that?
A tiger bit me, he says.
That’s not true. You don’t get tigers in France, says Margot.
Are there tigers in France? I ask Claude.
It escaped from a zoo, he says.
Wow! we say.
It bit my leg too; I was quite lucky to get away alive.
That’s right, says Margot. You should always beware of tigers. And lions too.
And bears, I add, and snakes.
All excellent advice, says Claude.
I am going to tell him about some more ferocious animals, but my words turn into a big, wide-mouth yawn. I snuggle down on my hay bale, my arm draped over Merlin. Sunlight sloshes through the windows, brightening my thoughts and warming me into sleepiness. I fly up into my head to play with my thoughts.
When I wake up I have another towel on top of me like a blanket. Merlin is still here, but he is lying down on the floor, snoring. Margot has found a thin piece of rope which she is using to skip with. She is completely dry.
Claude has a rag and is standing by the
polishing a big knife shaped like a banana, his fingers moving in tiny circles on the metal. He seems to be concentrating hard, rubbing the same spot over and over as though there is a stain on it he can’t get off. But the knife is shiny-clean. A sunbeam slants in through the shutters and glints off the edge of the blade. Summer has come back while I slept.
I’m awake, I say.
Merlin wakes up and barks a friendly sort of bark.
Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, says Margot. She even counts when she is skipping.
Claude looks up at me. Did you have a nice sleep?
I nod, feeling a bit shy. What’s that for? I ask.
Claude swaps the knife into his other hand and swishes it through a dusty sunbeam. It’s for hacking through the jungle when you’re looking for elephants, he says.
Oh, I say.
When I am an elephant, Margot says, you will never catch me. I’m too fast for you.
And when I am a tiger, I say, I won’t bite you.
You won’t? says Claude.
Claude smiles crookedly and says, Listen, I want to tell you a story. He puts the knife back on its nail and his cleaning rag in a drawer. Then he comes over to the hay bales and sits down beside me. He is damp and smells like bath-time. Margot comes over and sits on the floor at his feet, next to Merlin. We like stories.
Once upon a time, says Claude, there was a little boy called Gaston, who liked very much to have adventures. One day, this little boy was out on a hill, when a storm came over, with thunder and lightning. Lots of it.