1. The Letter
I never expected to be telling this story. After David died, I was the only one who knew it, and I’ve kind of got used to no-one listening to me. Before he died, he was the only one I’d talk to about it.
When I got the letter – about a young woman who wanted me to come and talk to her in some office in the Social Work department – I don’t exactly know what I thought. It seemed this young woman had been up for trial for various misdeeds – drug-dealing, theft, the usual kind of stuff. She’d been found guilty, but the judge had delayed sentencing her until he’d had various reports, psychiatric reports, social work reports. So when they’d been getting their social work report together, she’d apparently mentioned my name – well, mine and David’s together – same surname of course – and been very decided about wanting to speak to me before she was put into prison. They didn’t tell me all of this in the letter, just asked me if I’d mind coming in and meeting this person, Eleanor she was called – same surname as me and David. Well, there was no Eleanor Justice in my family, as far as I knew (Justice is my surname, by the way, nothing to do with trials and judges, it’s just a name); certainly no young Eleanor Justice.
Did I think of Jollyunder? Well, when do I not think of Jollyunder; but – no, I didn’t make any connection. I assumed this girl had found out I had the same surname as her and decided she could spin some hard-luck yarn and maybe get me to help her or put in a good word for her or something.
So, I found my way to this office: late, of course, by the time I’d worked out how to get there and one person had given me directions and then I’d got lost and asked someone else and they told me the first person’s directions were all wrong and sent me back the way I’d come. Staircases and lifts and corridors. So I was late; and that stresses me, so I probably wasn’t at my best, but eventually I found my way into this room, way high up in the building, that seemed to be full of people and morning sunlight (there were only five people, in fact – six including me) and I was sat down opposite this bird sitting behind a bare table, with the other three people sitting back from her a bit holding folders and clipboards and notes and everything. High up in the building, like I say: through the big window I could see the whole town spread out below.
So we were face to face on either side of this table, this Eleanor Justice and me; and I looked at her and – well, I’d never set eyes on her in my life.
I suppose she was quite young, it was a bit hard to say, because she really didn’t look too well: pale, straggly kind of hair, dark rings round her eyes. A user, as well as a dealer, that was my thought. But when I looked closer I thought, actually, she could be quite good-looking if she was tidied up a bit. You shouldn’t really make judgments about people’s appearance like this, but you do. Anyway, she kept her head down: glanced up at me now and again, but mainly just stared down at the table.
The other people in the room introduced themselves, but I didn’t get any of their names. One was a lawyer, I registered that; then there was her social worker, and some psychologist person. Two women and a man. Oh, and there was an older woman, white-haired, she just sat by herself in a corner. She didn’t introduce herself or even look up, she was writing things in a little notebook, or maybe drawing pictures, I’m not sure which. Maybe she was an artist sketching, that was what I thought. One of the two younger women – I say younger: they were, I don’t know, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings, that kind of age – anyway they didn’t seem bothered that I was late, they were all perfectly fine – she thanked me for coming and she realised it was a bit of an unusual request and all that. So I can’t say I exactly relaxed or anything, but I could see they were trying to put me at my ease, so I just took a deep breath and waited to see what was coming next.
“Ellie has requested to see you,” this woman went on. “She says it’s very important that she gets to see you, and it’ll help her to set everything right. We want to do the best for her, you understand. We’d rather she wasn’t sent to prison, though of course that’ll depend on the judge, but -”
“But she says she doesn’t mind about prison one way or the other,” the man put in; “- that’s not why she requested to see you.”
“Why did you request to see me?” I asked this Ellie direct.
She looked up – just for a moment again, then looked down at the table. She cleared her throat and said something. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” I said.
“I want you to tell me your story,” she said. I only just heard her that time, and I wondered if I’d misheard. I looked at the woman who’d spoken before. She gave a sort of half-shrug. “She’d like you to tell her your story,” she said.
I panicked a bit at that. “What – her?” I said. “Why?” Then: “I don’t have a story.”
“Everyone has a story,” the girl said, suddenly in a much stronger voice. “And you more than anyone.”
The look she gave me when she said that was direct and – I don’t know, pleading somehow. It was a plea from some depth of misery which I didn’t understand – how could I, a total stranger?
It was such a strange request, made in such a strange way, I panicked for a moment. I stalled. “Who wants to hear it?”
“I do,” the girl said.
“We all do,” one of the women said – the one who was supposed to be this Eleanor’s lawyer. I wasn’t actually sure if she did want to hear it, she looked a bit bored as far as I could see.
I couldn’t think how she could know that I had this story – my story, the obvious one I had to tell, about Jollyunder and everything – or how she’d got hold of me, or any of those things.
“How do you know I have a story?” I said. No reply. Of course, she’d already answered that question anyway: everyone has a story. But – “I mean,” I tried again, “why do you say me more than anyone, as if you know what my story would be about? No-one knows about it.”
“Mr Justice,” the man said quietly – he was a beardy chap, and he was looking at me over his glasses – “please understand there’s no pressure on you. You don’t have to tell your story if you don’t want to. Ellie thought you would want to, and we all agreed because it looked as though it might help us to give a favourable character reference for her – and we would like to keep her out of prison, even if she doesn’t care.”
“You want me to do – what,” I said, “tell you my life story?” I was still stalling, I have to admit.
“Not exactly,” the woman said – the one who had spoken before. “It’s the story of someone called Jollyunder.”
That made me sit up and quit stalling. Jollyunder! There was no-one, apart from Vanessa, who could have the faintest clue…. David said he’d never told a soul. Could this young woman, this Ellie, be a relative of Vanessa’s?
This Ellie was looking at me again; not saying anything: just staring – beseechingly.
I quit stalling, like I say. The panic passed: I hadn’t realised I’d been in a panic, but I was. No-one had ever asked me anything remotely like this. Ellie’s eyes, so full of despair, so – I don’t know what: at the end of everything, they were what made me stop panicking. “All right,” I said. “But it’ll take some time.”
“That’s all right,” Beardy said. “We’ve got all day.”
That didn’t seem very likely; but I guessed they could just interrupt and stop me if I was interfering with their busy schedules.
So I sat there in that room with those five strangers, and I told my story. The older woman over in the corner might have been taking notes, I wasn’t sure, she might just have gone on sketching – she might have been nothing to do with the rest of us, just some random old biddy who always sat in that room and got ignored….
Anyway, this is the story I told, the story of Jollyunder.
Jollyunder’s the name of a person. I know it’s not a proper name, but I’ll come to that. Who was she? Well, we didn’t know that until the end, and I should start at the beginning.
Where did she come from? That is a question. I know it was somewhere, because we went there, we saw the place, even though we came back not knowing where it was. My brother, David, said it was under the ground – inside the earth – so his theory was, she was a gnome. But I don’t know what he’s talking about – was talking about. I suppose it might be the feeling we had when we got back, that we’d been underground. But what does gnome mean? It doesn’t mean anything to me.
Or maybe gnome does conjure something up. Not like a garden gnome, though: she looked like a baby, really – a bit ugly, in a podgy, crinkled kind of way – except that she was always smiling or laughing, and that made you want to smile and laugh too, so you were always wanting to look at her, looking for another chance to smile and laugh – so she can’t really have been ugly, can she? She must have been beautiful really. Let’s forget about gnomes.
You’ll say, but you must know where she came from, because you must remember how she got here. Well the answer to that is, no, I don’t remember her coming. It felt like she’d always been there. Well, you’ll say, chances are she wasn’t just like a baby, then: she was a real baby! – so she must have got here the usual way, and you must remember your mum being pregnant.
No, I’d have to say, I don’t.
– Adopted, then: she must have been adopted. Which would be a good suggestion – but I can’t help there either. I don’t remember anyone being adopted. Anyway, why would our mother have adopted a baby when she was already stretched enough with two kids, David and me?
So, I know you’ll scoff and say, there must be something I’m forgetting – do you really expect us to believe about her suddenly being there, and looking like a baby but not really being one, and it feeling like she’d been there all our lives? Well, I can’t help it, that’s just how it was. But see, this is nothing, compared to the other strange things about her.
It all started with Woeburn House and the Bad Place. That’s what David and I called it, the Bad Place or the Bad Shed. Woeburn House was up the road from us, not very far away. It was one of those gaunt, dark, damp mansion-houses, not like in a horror-film, nothing like as interesting as that: just a big straggly boring heap of a place with dark evergreen trees growing too close to the walls, and dark-green scabby window-frames and dark-grey walls that looked all soft with lichen and moss. The only reason we paid any attention to the place was that it was five times the size of any other house we knew. We lived in a terrace of houses, Maxwell Terrace, just off Woeburn Road and we couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live in such a huge dismal place.
We were curious, too, about the one person who did live there – all alone in that huge place, a knobbly old woman with scrawked-back white hair and a face like worn shoe-leather.
She seemed to be some sad old case who’d never had a family and had got used to living on her own. She wasn’t particularly friendly, though no-one had heard of her being nasty to anyone, but as you can probably imagine we made up plenty of stories about her. I dare say witch came into a good many of them.
We weren’t actually thinking about her, really, on the day it all happened. There were lots of woods up behind Woeburn House, and we spent a lot of time doing stuff up there: and the quickest way to them happened to be through the grounds of Woeburn House. Like I say, these grounds were mostly full of dark old trees, so you could get through them and up to the proper woods quite easily without being seen from the house. So that’s what we did most times, and I daresay we’d got a bit careless. It was a misty damp kind of day, and we’d been well scratched and showered ducking through the damp trees, and we came to this bit of lawn and instead of going round it like we usually did we thought we’d just go across it. We’d almost got across, when there she was, and we were in full view.
We could have just cut and run for it, I suppose, but we didn’t: I don’t know why. Perhaps she didn’t look all that threatening. Perhaps – I don’t know – we felt sorry for her or something, standing there a bit stiff and scraggly and surprised. It was David who said afterwards, She can’t see that many people, I just thought she was lonely. Anyway we just stood there and stared at her, and she stood there and stared at us.
She looked pretty old, but not all that old. She reminded me of what? – a Red Indian I think. I know that sounds pretty daft. It was something to do with the scrawked-back hair and leathery skin, and the big brown eyes I suppose, and her clothes – I can’t remember much about her clothes, expect that they didn’t seem like ordinary old-woman clothes. Yes, she seemed a bit like some wise old Red Indian chief. David thought so too. We made jokes about her later – Big Chief Nobble-Nose, we called her. We were very silly, typical young boys I suppose.
She can’t have thought we were that bad though, she was pretty decent to us. “Where are you going?” she said – just ordinary, not angry-like.
“Up to the woods,” David muttered, pointing.
“Do you know what’s there?” she said.
David shrugged. “Trees,” he said.
“Well, that’s certainly what I’d expect to find in a wood,” she said, kind of stiff and sarcastic-like. “Have you been here before?”
I said, yes, we had – then immediately thought that mightn’t have been a sensible thing to say, just in case it made her mad. I generally let David do the talking.
Then she said something that was a bit weird. “Then you’ll have seen the gillyflowers?”
I looked at David. He looked taken aback. “What’s that?” he said.
“What, you didn’t notice the gillyflowers? You don’t see what’s happening to them?” – it all seemed to come bursting out of her suddenly – “What, are you blind? What kind of children are you? Do you never look where you’re putting your feet?”
“I’m sorry,” David kind of muttered. We didn’t like being called children, and normally he might have said something a bit mouthy, but he didn’t, he obviously felt a bit shy and put out, like I did. “I don’t really know what you mean.”
Then she seemed to bend a bit and stare at us closely. It’s funny, when we first saw her she might have been, I don’t know, about as far away as a good spit, maybe a bit farther. And I don’t remember us getting any closer to her when we started speaking, but I do know that by this time we were right up next to her, like you are when you’re speaking to someone. That was a bit strange. At last she said, quite quietly but very distinct-like. “No, but you should know about them. Perhaps it’s no wonder that you know nothing about them, living as you do. You need to grow up. Come with me.”
She turned and walked off across the grass. I’ve got a vague memory of that, the way she walked on ahead of us. I seem to picture her wearing a skirt, but a pair of trousers underneath, and sort of soft leathery boots. Or maybe I’m just imagining that because of the red-Indian thing. Anyway, we could have escaped I suppose, bolted off in the direction we normally went in, towards the trees and off up to the thicker woods. But we didn’t, we followed her where she was going, into the mist, over the wet grey lawn.
She never looked back. She must have just been expecting we’d follow. That was quite good, we didn’t feel under any pressure. I guess we were probably curious. So we went on round the back of Woeburn House – we could see it as a kind of dark blob in the mist over on our right, and so into a bit of the garden that we’d never actually seen before, a big wide bit, all open and with grand stone terraces and statues and stuff. And by the time we got there the mist must have cleared, or something, because we could see right down a sort of small valley, and then the ground rose up again on the further side to where you could see the dark line of the woods we’d been trying to get to. They were a fair way off, further than you’d have expected, really. Maybe it was something to do with the mist, I don’t know – I mean it looked as though the mist had cleared and the woods were further off than we’d realised; but it could have just been a trick of the light, and the woods were nearer and the mist was there all the time.
I know this all sounds a bit confusing, but in a way it’s important. The thing was, although there didn’t seem to be any mist, there was this bluish haze all over the ground, as if the mist had all been gathered just above ground level, and maybe got a bit concentrated too, like fruit juice in the bottom of a glass before you put the water in and it goes paler. It was like concentrated mist, more blue than grey.
“These are the gillyfields,” the woman said. “They are my crop. I am here to look after them.”
David had found his tongue at last. “We don’t even know what these gilly-things are,” he said. “Why are you so keen for us to see them?”
“Come,” she said. “Once, boys of your age would have received proper initiation. Now you’re just left to yourselves, and no-one cares about you. Come and see.”
Of course, that’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to get your alarm-bells ringing, when you’re just young and a strange adult starts saying weird stuff like that to you. But this was all a few years ago, maybe we were more trusting then or something. Or maybe she just had some kind of authority and we wouldn’t have thought of arguing with her, I don’t know. Anyway, we followed her, and she led us down some broad shallow stone steps in the big terrace, and when we got to the bottom step, she stopped and pointed down at these little flowers down in the grass.
If they’d been blue flowers, we’d have realised straight away that that’s what the bluish mist was all over the little valley and up to the edge of the woods. But they weren’t blue, they were – I don’t know – grey. They weren’t much to look at, but I thought they were a bit unusual. Not that we knew much about flowers, David and me – but I thought there was something a bit odd about them. They looked like faces, or something – sleeping faces, eyes closed, very still and pale. You know, like pansies look like they’ve got faces, everyone knows pansies, with big moustaches and eyebrows and cross mouths. These weren’t anything like as obvious as pansy-faces – they were very small flowers, apart from anything else – but they made you think of faces all the same.
“What’s so special about them?” David said.
“They are souls.” She said it just like that, completely matter-of-fact. Like she was saying, they’re weeds, or something, except she said they are souls.
“What do you mean?” David said. As you would.
“Don’t you know what a soul is?” the woman said.
“Yes, I think so,” David said. “But these are just flowers, what do you mean, they’re souls?” I just let him do the talking, I thought he was doing great.
“I can see you know very little about anything,” Nobble-Nose replied. “Perhaps there’s no point in trying to explain anything to you.”
“All right,” said David. That was a bit mouthy.
“Do you mean, the souls are inside the flowers?” I said. I must have heard about this kind of stuff or something.
“It’s not as simple as that,” she said, turning to me. “But if that’s the best you can do, let’s say that’s what it is.”
“So you’re saying there’s souls inside these flowers,” David said. “What souls?” I could see he was thinking what I was thinking, that we’d managed to get ourselves a right one here, and what would we do, play her along or get out?
“The dead souls – the souls of the people who die.”
As she said it – and later David said he felt exactly the same thing – I felt this coldness, like a sort of electric shock, only slow, it didn’t pass – like a cramp maybe – going right down the back of my legs and into the stone of the step we were standing on, holding me there. It was like fear, if you’ve ever felt really frightened, but it was in my legs not in my head. I really couldn’t have moved even if I wanted to. I mean, I didn’t believe what she was saying, I was, well ninety-nine per cent sure that this was just a big meadow of slightly weird-looking flowers. But when someone says something like that – these are the souls of dead people – there’s some bit of you that can’t help responding, and you can cover up by getting mouthy or stupid or even angry I suppose but the thing still remains – you still respond – you can’t help it, you get a shiver; it’s only natural.
My mind went blank. I could have said something stupid, but I just said, “How do you look after them?” – it seemed better just to ask.
She put her hand on my shoulder – it was nice really – and she said, “I watch them. I can’t do anything. I watch them and I know when things go wrong.”
“What can go wrong with a bunch of flowers?” David said. You could tell he was struggling to keep a bit sceptical.
“They get sick,” she replied. “And then they can’t be a proper home for the dead souls.”
“And what happens to the dead souls?” We both seemed to be speaking in turns like we were in some kind of trance.
“They can’t die properly.”
“So what happens to them instead?”
“To them? Nothing.”
“Well that’s all right then. Isn’t it?”
“No. Nothing happens to them. But if the dead can’t die properly the living can’t live properly and then the whole world starts to go to ruin.”
“But that’s not happening is it?” I said. “I mean they look all right don’t they? You said you just watch over them so you know if they do get sick.”
She lifted her hand and pointed. “Up there,” she said. “That’s where it’s spreading from. Up there at the edge of the wood: you see the place? The gillyflowers there are already dying. Elsewhere they are sickening. I don’t know what can be done for them, but I think they will die too. They will all die. The sickness will get here last of all but it will still get here.”
We could see the place she was pointing to: a sort of bare, grey place just where the meadow of gillyflowers or whatever they were got quite steep as it ran up to the edge of the wood.
“Is there nothing you can do?” David said. I could see he had forgotten about being sceptical now – he believed everything she said.
“Nothing I know of” she replied. “What would you do?”
“Well how should I know that!”
“Maybe it won’t matter all that much” I suggested. “Maybe it won’t make very much difference after all.”
“If the living can’t live properly,” the woman answered, “the first thing that will happen is that their numbers will increase – to make up for the poor lives they lead. There will be more and more of them. Individually none of them will live as much, but together they will try to get the same amount of life that they had before. If that doesn’t seem very serious to you, you can think of this: even if they don’t live as much they’ll still go on eating as much. So before long there won’t be enough food to go around. I’d say that would concern you even if you don’t care much about the gillyflowers.”
She was being quite sarcastic – quite nice on the outside, but underneath really angry, I could feel that. I felt ashamed – I mean ashamed that she thought the only thing I cared about was food. I’d say she was right, of course, but I didn’t want it to be – I wanted to care about the gillyflowers; it’s just – perhaps you understand – when you are as young as us you don’t care that much about a bunch of flowers in a field – they don’t really do it for you.
Anyway I wanted to care – or I wanted her to think I cared – so I said, “I’d like to be able to help the gillyflowers.” And David said “I’d like to too. But what can we do?”
And the woman said, “Go home” – really abruptly like that, and she turned away and went marching up the stairs of the terrace. We followed her back up to the lawn we’d come across but she was gone, marching off at top speed in the other direction, so it looked pretty obvious she didn’t want to talk to us any more. We didn’t feel much like going on up to the wood by this time – in fact we both felt a bit shaken – so we just started to make our way back the way we’d come, through the grounds of the house and back onto Woeburn Road.
The first thing we saw there was an old road sweeper with his little cart and his big brush and shovel and a fag hanging out of his mouth, and we both had the same reaction: we fell about laughing. We suddenly realised we had returned to normal – and wherever we’d been for the last half hour it certainly hadn’t been anywhere normal. The old road sweeper thought we were laughing at him and he growled “garn, piss off!” And his fag came unstuck and fell out of his mouth and that made us laugh all the more and we went running off down Woeburne Road like a couple of rabbits let out of the sack.
We really did feel like we’d come out of some kind of trance. We’d been standing all that time asking questions so seriously and listening to everything that mad old bird had been telling us and we’d finished up actually believing her; and now we were on our way back home again and we saw it had all been some kind of weird trick.
“Like a hypnotist!” I said “she could have had us running around with your trousers down if she’d wanted!”
“Big Chief Nobble-nose!” David howled. “How! Me very worried about me gilly-goolies! And we both fell about laughing again.
When we got back home and we’d sensibled up a bit David said, “I know that place she was pointing to. I’ve never been there but I know what it is: it’s just an old rubbish dump at the edge of the wood. There’s a track that goes to it from the road. It’s just an ordinary rubbish dump.”
It must have been about this time that Jollyunder came to us. I’m pretty sure of this because I remember she was already in the house when David and I went up to look at the rubbish-dump and see if we could find any gillyflowers lying around with their legs in the air. I know she had come by that time, because that’s when we found the little bike-seat and we thought it’d be just the thing for her. But like I say, I’ve no memory of her coming to stay with us, it was like she’d always been there, although of course I know she couldn’t have been.
What’s the first I remember of her? Well, it’s of her sleeping in the little room our mother got ready for her. It was kind of like a nursery – Mum always called it the nursery – with a cot, and a basket with cute little teddies and stuff and a doll’s house, though Jollyunder never paid any attention to any of that. The one thing that wasn’t nursery-like was the walls, because our father painted them dark blue. That sounds pretty strange, but I’ll explain why it happened. To start with, they were ordinary bright-coloured walls, Dad papered them with some old-fashioned nursery paper, flowers and rocking-horses and lambs jumping over fences and that kind of nonsense, but Jollyunder soon made it pretty clear that she didn’t like any of that stuff at all, and she would point to the walls and shout “night! night!” – that’s how she always talked, just in single words, a bit like a baby I suppose, or else – we thought of this later – like she was a foreigner who could only speak a few words of our language. Anyway, “Night! Night!” she would shout, and of course Mum, who was all maternal about her, thought she was being cute and saying night-night and she’d wave back to her in her cot and say “Nighty-night, darling,” but of course Jollyunder would just shout all the more and point to the walls and go “Night! Night!” till she was really furious. It was Dad who finally said, Maybe she wants the walls to look like the night, and he had this little pot of navy-blue paint, so he painted a little bit of the wall with that and Jollyunder pointed to it and went, “Yes! Yes!” So that seemed pretty obvious, and so my parents had the sense to re-decorate the room the way she wanted, even though they thought it was downright weird and Jollyunder was some sort of freak.
Next it was the curtains, and Jollyunder demanded heavy dark blue curtains as well. My Dad grumbled a bit about how expensive they were, because of course they had to be velvet, but once the room was painted and the curtains were up, we began to see what it was all about. Well, that’s not true: we didn’t have a clue what it was all about, we just observed what happened when she got her dark walls and her dark curtains.
She started to shine. Don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t remember that we even tried, even at the time. And by the time we’d got to the stage of wanting to explain it, we’d got kind of used to it anyway, or at least David and I had. We just took it for granted: Jollyunder shone in the dark. It wasn’t some kind of weird, spooky glow. You’d go into the room and it was like the sun was shining. I mean, you could practically hear the birds singing, it was so real. She wasn’t, like too bright to look at or anything, she just looked completely normal, but it was as if the whole room was filled with summer sunlight. I suppose Mum and Dad could have taken her to the doctor, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a sickness that she was suffering from, was it? I mean, you can hardly object to sunlight.
I’ll try and describe what she looked like. I told you she looked like a baby, all wrinkly and podgy and that. I don’t know if she did really. She had wonderful skin – like honey, old, bronzey honey, like the honey they found in the Pharoah’s tomb – I never saw the honey they found in the Pharoah’s tomb, but that’s how I imagined it would be like – dark-bronze, five-thousand-year-old honey and still good to eat. And her hair was dark and curly, but there were like wild corkscrew whisps of it that came out all over the place, like those pictures you see of sun-flares shooting out of the sun, and they were paler, so there was like this halo of dusky gold all around her head. God, she was beautiful. Like a baby but not. Like the way she talked, that was like a baby too, but not. I don’t know how she got to be called Jollyunder. Later on, that’s what she always said her name was if anyone asked her, but it sounds like a made-up name. I suppose she must have said what her real name was but it sounded too foreign, so we just called her the thing it sounded most like.
What age of baby, you’ll want to know. Well, once again, I’m not sure. Nappies? I don’t remember a thing about that, maybe young boys just don’t. She’d sit on a potty later on, but that was because she was too small to get on a toilet. I think, to begin with, she stayed in her cot a lot, just like a real small baby, and of course Mum carried her around too. But I know at some stage or other she could walk – I mean, I could hardly forget that.
I don’t know if that was the first time she was put down on her feet, out in the garden. Possibly, it was a bit like the way she shone when her room was made dark, it didn’t happen straight away. We had this bit of garden at the back of the house – just a long strip, same as all the other houses, with a drying-green near the house and Dad’s vegetable garden up at the far end. So she started going out into this garden a lot, she could definitely walk by this time because I remember her trotting around on the grass in that business-like way she had, over the washing-green, between the rows of vegetables, humming softly all the time like she was murmuring to all the plants, back down to the house and then off round again.
“What’s all those flowers doing out on the grass?” Dad said one morning, peering out of the window. Dad could be pretty fearsome if anyone did any damage to his garden – that was one reason why we didn’t play there, we just kept out on the street or went up to the woods. But he wasn’t exactly being fearsome now, just incredibly surprised. So we all crowded to the window – I think we were imagining a few flower-heads scattered about on the grass or something, the way little kids do. What we actually saw were great swathes of fowers – wildflowers, growing flowers, not picked or cut, as tall as your waist, great swathes and swirls of them all over the garden, not just on the grass, on the paths as well, and between the rows of vegetables. The garden was a complete riot of colour.
Of course David and I guessed at once, but it took Dad a bit longer to accept that the flowers had sprung up wherever Jollyunder had walked.
That was great, I suppose. A ready-made garden wherever you wanted it. All you had to do was put Jollyunder down on the ground and let her walk about a bit, and hey presto you had a wild meadow. The trouble is, not everyone wants a wild meadow. It got really difficult for our mother to go and hang the washing out. Dad was tearing his hair out because he could hardly see his vegetables any more, they were under such piles of marigolds and cornflowers and poppies and ox-eyes and I don’t know what all.
Anyway, there was a tiny rose-garden at the front of the house, and Dad had the idea of penning it off with a proper fence and letting Jollyunder out into it, like it was a big play-pen. So that was fine. Off she went, round and round this tiny bit of garden. Flowers everywhere, like a jungle. The roses grew into trees that overshadowed the neighbours’ gardens with huge scented blossoms. The postman had to beat a path to the door, and every time Jollyunder went out there again, up the flowers came again and the poor postie had to start off beating another path next morning.
“You got some kind if miracle fertiliser, Joe?” the neighbours would ask Dad (they didn’t mind about the roses, luckily, but they were certainly curious).
“Something like that,” Dad would reply, and tap the side of his nose. “Secret formula though.” He didn’t want to tell anyone the real reason, just in case people started getting ideas about Jollyunder and someone took it into their head to steal her away.
But my parents were certainly starting to get a bit anxious about the whole thing. They tried to talk to Jollyunder about it. “Why do flowers always grow where you’ve walked, Jollyunder?” they asked.
“Flowers,” Jollyunder replied, with a huge smile, rolling her eyes. “Good flowers.”
“Yes, we know they’re good,” my parents said, “but there’s an awful lot of them and they’re getting in the way. Can’t you stop them growing quite so much?”
Jollyunder rolled her eyes some more and said, “Try,” and put on a concentrating face – that made us all fall about, because she looked just like when she was sitting on the toilet, you know the way kids look when they’re concentrating on their business. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said, holding her hands out sadly. “Flowers come. Good flowers.”
It didn’t stop there though. After a bit the blooming flowers started coming up on the carpet when she’d been on it. Our mother had a new carpet in the living-room, her pride and joy. She came in one morning and there were trails of flowers growing all over it! Not as big as out in the garden, but they were there all right, and not just on the top of the carpet, they were growing up right through the pile. Mum had the devil’s job getting them all pulled up. “Right, she’s got to go, that’s all there is to it,” she said.
She didn’t really mean it, of course – I daresay she used to say the same kind of thing when David and I were babies and made some kind of mess on the floor – but it put the wind up us, and we sat down and put our thinking-caps on.
I’m not sure exactly why we decided to go up and look for the Bad Place that Big Chief Nobble-Nose had pointed out to us – sorry, I’d better call her Miss Salford, that was her real name – but we certainly didn’t admit to each other that we went there because of what she’d said about the gillyflowers. David just said, “Let’s go and look on that dump, maybe there’s some good stuff there, and I said something about finding something for the tree-house we were making. That was one of our ideas for solving the Jollyunder-flower problem, I know – making this tree house where we could leave her so she wouldn’t be able to turn everwhere into a jungle. Anyway off we went in search of the dump.
It was quite far into the woods, and we were careful not to go across any of the lawns at Woebourn House, so we had to take quite a long way round. But we found the track easily enough – it was a big, well-rutted track, because people used to drive trucks and tractors and things in to dump stuff. So we followed the track along through this thick wet pine-wood – they were young trees, not all that high, and planted so dense it would have been almost impossible to get through them, so it was just as well we had the track to go on, and then there was a sort of fringe of older, bigger trees, and then you were out on a flat area of beaten-down grass, and that was the bit we’d spotted when we were looking across from the terrace at Woeburn House.
It wasn’t at all a nice place. I don’t think we could quite put our finger on it then, but looking back I think what it was was mostly to do with those bigger trees I told you about – big dark pine-trees they were, but they were wrong somehow, too straggly or something, and all gaunt and broken with dead branches here and there. And then there was litter – it wasn’t something we’d normally have noticed, but it looked as though people had been going about deliberately throwing litter about – bottles, plastic sacks, rusty wheels, bedsprings, sodden paper, you name it: I suppose some of it must have blown up from the dump, or been caught by the branches as the trucks passed through, but surely not all of it. It looked as though someone had been around there just wanting to make a mess – just wanting the place to look nasty.
Anyway this flat space beyond the trees wasn’t the dump itself: the actual dump was over the edge from it – I suppose it could have been an old stone-quarry or something once, but most of it was filled up by now, so it was quite easy to scramble over the edge and drop down onto the dump, and that’s what we did.
Oh, and there was a fence, I forgot to mention that. A barbed wire fence. It was a pretty saggy affair, and anyone could have got through it, but guess what? I managed to get my new trousers caught in it, and I ripped them. I was horrified. I knew Mum would insist on getting them mended properly at the shop, and that meant I’d have to wait ages till they were ready, and in the meantime the only other trousers I had were a pair of short ones. So I was hopping about with a red face and moaning and trying to hold the rip together as if it’d heal up by itself if I went on holding it for long enough. Anyway David thought I looked really funny, so he was falling about, and that’s probably why we didn’t notice the Shed to begin with. When we did, I suppose the laughing kind of died away, and I must have forgotten about my ripped pants.
It wasn’t an especially nasty dump. It smelled a bit, as they do, but there was plenty of stuff lying around that looked pretty interesting. So we kind of noticed all this, but then, as I say, we saw the Shed, and that kind of distracted us. Not in a big way, you understand. The effect of the Shed was more gradual. We thought we were looking about for stuff on the dump, and we didn’t really think it was odd how we’d suddenly forgotten about my ripped pants, but bit by bit we became aware of the Shed. It was like a Presence. It was like a nightmare you’ve had that you keep remembering even when you think you’ve forgotten about it.
This is hard to explain. The thing is, there was absolutely nothing special about it. It was a tumbledown wooden shed with a tin roof and a sagging door. It stood on a low mound – just a grey mound, bare, kind of sickly ash-grey, it looked as though there was a thin skim of mud on the surface. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? I don’t know if we even realised just how bad it was at the time, it maybe sort of went on building up in our minds, like we couldn’t leave it behind even though we never went back to the dump. But at some time or other we both just knew: it was the most terrible place we’d ever seen.
So anyway, we didn’t say anything at the time. We just kind of mooched about among all these piles of rubbish, picking stuff up, examining it, dropping it, calling each other over to look – the usual kind of stuff you do on a dump. There was a lot of animal bones around too, and kind of half-skeletons. That didn’t look too nice. I suppose farmers must have dumped dead cows and sheep and stuff over, and the foxes and that had scattered some of the bones about.
“We shouldn’t really be here,” I said suddenly. “What if someone caught us?”
Normally David would have said something like, Don’t be a pussy, and we might have quarreled a bit and called each other names; but he didn’t say anything, just “yeah, let’s get out.” So that was a bit unusual, it shows we were both feeling pretty unsettled. But just then we saw just the very last thing we’d been expecting, and the very thing we’d been looking for without realising. It was an old bicycle seat – I don’t mean a saddle, I mean one of those small child-seats you fit on behind the saddle. David pounced on it. “We could fit this to some straps,” he exclaimed, “and carry her on our back!” He didn’t even need to say who he meant by her. So our visit to the dump ended in triumph, and we didn’t have to think of excuses for why we got the hell out of there so quick.
At the lower end of the place we could see down over the little valley to Woebourn House, we could even see the big stone terrace where we’d stood and looked up the hill with Miss Salford. It was a clear, sunny sort of day, and we could see a sort of blueness over the sloping meadow – especially over at the far side where it climbed back up to the terrace – but we didn’t see any gillyflowers – well, we were both pretending we weren’t looking for them anyway. In fact, there was nothing growing beyond the lower edge of the dump, there was a sort of pale grey mud reaching down from it like a small lake, and then beyond that there were some browny kind of dockens straggling about, then some piles of broken rotten-looking branches, then like a wall of nettles. We couldn’t see the actual beginning of the gillyflower meadow, and neither of us bothered to go and take a closer look.
The only thing we said about it was after we’d scrambled back up the edge out of the dump and were safely back on the track through the thick trees. Then David just said, “Stupid old bat.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She really had us. Most likely she was trying to scare us.”
“Never scared me,” David said.
“Me neither,” I said, and he didn’t argue.
“What are you looking at!” he snapped, and that made me jump – but it was this skeleton he was talking to: a sheep skeleton, it must have been, and it was upright, it was still standing. It must have caught its wool in the fence and got totally stuck and just starved to death. You could still see the skin in places, stretched over the bones. But the head was bare – I mean, it was a skull just, with empty grey eye-sockets. David threw a stone at it. He missed.
4. The Bad Shed
So we got on top of the flower problem too. We had an old rucksack frame and we had the little bicycle seat and we got the two of them strapped together and we carried her around in this makeshift backpack. Jollyunder loved it. “My fly-chair” she called it, I don’t know why: maybe she felt she was flying when we were lugging her about in it. It didn’t feel like flying to us, I can tell you! She was pretty hefty. But we loved it too: we felt really special, somehow, when we had her there at our shoulder – she sort of cheered you on and encouraged you. She always thought everything we did was great and that makes you feel like a million dollars. And there was no more trouble with flowers. As long as her feet didn’t touch the ground no flowers sprang up – and no flowers meant no nuisance. Our parents did get a bit concerned that it may not be very good for her never walking anywhere, but we would take her up into the woods and let her run about where flowers wouldn’t bother anyone – sometimes we’d take her to the park too and let her run about there: that was more for fun than anything else, just to see the council guys scratching their heads and looking so puzzled about how a heap of poppies had suddenly grown up on the grass they cut the day before. But we didn’t do that too often in case we got found out. Actually Jollyunder didn’t seem to mind being kept in the fly-chair most of the time – like I say she loved being in it, and David and I had an idea that she was actually a bit lazy too. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it gets a bit exhausting leaving trails of flowers behind you wherever you go.
We went all over the place with her in her new chair. Other people – who of course never really looked at her that closely – just thought she was an ordinary baby when they saw her sitting there tiny and sunny-bright, laughing and waving at everyone, with her hair sticking up all over the place like golden corkscrews of smoke from a coal fire; they just smiled back at her and said what a little darling she was and lots of them got so taken up with gazing at her or waving and smiling back at her that they tripped over things or bumped into things. I don’t think anyone got too badly injured though.
The only thing was, it wasn’t just other people that wanted to wave back to her – it was everything: I mean things that you wouldn’t have thought would be interested, like trees and bushes and stuff. And animals of course. You’d be walking along with Jollyunder on your back and there’d be dogs running up and jumping on you to lick her; and all the bushes along the roadside shaking their leaves, and the big trees waving their branches up and down like they were in a hurricane, and squirrels suddenly dropping down onto your shoulder – horrible sharp claws squirrels have, and they really dig them in – just to rub noses with her; and birds! Birds everywhere, swooping down on you in great flocks out of nowhere, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, finches, pigeons, seagulls, ducks from the pond – even dirty great swans that just about knocked you over – and they’d swoop in and out just desperate to flick her hand or her hair with the tip of their wings. Messy things, birds: desperate to touch Jollyunder but they didn’t mind about us: no, we might as well have been an old lamp-post for all they cared, just there for their convenience so they could splop their droppings on us. Well, it wasn’t really a problem. It could be a nuisance but it didn’t hurt. We loved it really. It was worth it all just to have Jollyunder on your back. I mean, she didn’t treat you like some lamppost: she was always stroking your hair or patting you on the back or shouting encouraging stuff at you – oh, and warnings to the birds, like “No messes! No messes!”- though it has to be said they didn’t pay much attention.
Well, we had lots of happy times with Jollyunder but there was more to her than just happiness. There was the time I got beaten up for instance. It was some boys at school and it was because of Jollyunder. These boys caught me on the way back from school one day. They said to me, Your little sister’s a divvy. I said, She’s not really my sister you know. So they beat me up. It really hurt: they had me down on the pavement kicking my body and my head and all. I was in a real mess by the time I limped home and I was blubbering, I can tell you, with pain and rage and fright and everything. I was muttering about how I was going to find them all and kill them one by one. Jollyunder was in her fly-chair on David’s back and she looked at me sort of long and cool, and then she got David to take her out and she came and sat beside me where I was all hunched up on the couch, and rested her head against me and murmured, “Sorry, poor Charlie, sorry, sorry.” I don’t know if she realised it was because of her that I’d got done. Anyway that just made me cry all the more but I stopped feeling so angry and in a minute or so I was feeling sorry too, though I’m not quite sure what for. “I’m sorry too Jollyunder” I blubbered, “I’m sorry too.” We must have looked a real daft pair, sitting on the couch and moaning about how sorry we were.
But the crazy thing was, in a little while I felt completely better. I didn’t even have any bruises. I said to David, Look I’m fine, Jollyunder’s made me better. He just scoffed, he said you can’t have been done over that bad in the first place. But I was, I knew I was: I’d never been beaten up as bad as that. I think David believed me really, that it was Jollyunder that had done it, he just felt he had to say something sceptical.
Well I’m sure you’ll have guessed by now what way our minds were working, when we realised about the effect Jollyunder had on everything – I mean how everything seemed to love her and how she made everyone smile and laugh and wave and made the darkness bright and the flowers grow and so on – we thought about, well not exactly about old Miss Salford and her gillyflowers, but certainly about the bad place – the dump and the dead animals and that horrible shed. We thought, if there’s anything that could make that place better, it’s Jollyunder.
We weren’t actually stupid about it, we didn’t go rushing into it. We argued about it a good bit – if it was a good thing to try to do, if it might not work, if it might actually harm Jollyunder, which we definitely didn’t want to do. But in the end, David and I took her up into the woods – it was a good bit further than we usually went, but we thought we’d just see how she got on there.
It was in the school holidays, at Easter time, a lovely spring day, sunny and warm, and the daffodil flowers pushing up like golden froth wherever you looked, all the way up the drive and all round the edges of the lawns at Woeburn House – probably in a hurry to open up just so that they could wave to Jollyunder as we passed.
We got to the woods and went along our usual ways – with the usual thing, the trees swaying about and the birds swooping and all that stuff – till we came to the track through the thick trees. There weren’t any daffodils here and it still felt cold and wet and wintry. The wood seemed very silent here and it took us a few minutes to realise what was peculiar about it. What was peculiar was that it was ordinary. The trees weren’t moving; and if there were any birds about they certainly weren’t paying any attention to us.
I said something about it to David. He shrugged. “We’ve never been up here with her before,” he said. “Maybe it just takes the place a while to get to know her.”
“Do you want to go home, Jollyunder?” I said (she was on my back at the time).
“No, no” she said, very definite. “No going home. Stay here.”
Even at the time, I remember, there was a strange little doubt that went through my mind, about exactly what she meant by that – about exactly what she meant by those words, “going home” and “staying here”. After all, just because home was home to us, it didn’t figure that it was necessarily home to Jollyunder.
But David said, “See? She’s fine about it. Let’s go on.” So we just continued along the track
We got to the end of the track and stopped under the dark pines and stared over the edge. There was the dump, and there was the bad shed, the same as ever, grey, crooked, small, hunched-up like an ugly little dwarf, with nastiness just pouring out of it like some kind of invisible smoke. The grey mound it stood on was sad and bare, and the rusting things and the animal skeletons lay scattered around, bare and brown and grey and silent, while everywhere else the countryside was full of green fields and trees in bud and everything. Where we stood everything seemed ashen-pale, dead, desperate. The upright sheep-skeleton was just along a bit from us. There were lambs over in one of the fields not far away, they looked white as anything on the green grass, gleaming white as if they just been washed in Daz. And they all started bleating and leaping around when they saw us in the distance with Jollyunder. “Let’s just take her to see the lambs,” David said. “Let’s not take her any further.”
I looked up in surprise, that he’d suddenly changed his tune, but of course I agreed with him. We both realised now that we’d kind of brought Jollyunder here to test her out in some way, to see if her magic was really strong enough to have an effect on the horrible place. Now we felt certain this was a bad thing to do. What did it matter about the Bad Shed anyway? It wasn’t doing anybody any harm. As long as you kept away from it, you didn’t need to worry about it. And Miss Salford and her gillyflowers didn’t even come into it – I mean we’d put her right to the back of our minds by this time.
But Jollyunder wouldn’t let us go and see the lambs. The moment we turned away from the Bad Shed, and started skirting round the edge over towards the lambs’ field, she started kicking up a terrible hullabaloo. We’d never seen her like this before – it was like she was having a real temper-tantrum, screaming and kicking and hitting me on the head and pulling my hair – not just little tugs but really painfully.
“What is it you want, Jollyunder?” we said. “Don’t you want to go and see the lambs? Look – they’re all rushing up to see you.”
Kick. Scream. Scratch.
“Oh come on. They want you to go and say hello to them.”
Kick. Scratch. “No hello! Door! Door!”
David and I exchanged a glance. We were feeling a bit disturbed by now, it was so unlike the Jollyunder we knew.
“You don’t want to go to the Bad Shed, do you?” David said. “It’s not a nice place.”
But she screamed, “Shed! Shed! Shed!” pointing over and squirming around, with her eyes all filling with tears and her cheeks all red and puffy.
That was too scary. We’d never seen her cry before. “Shed! Now!” she screamed.
“All right, all right,” David said. “Keep your knickers on. We’ll take you there. Come on,” he said to me. “We might as well, since we’ve come.”
She stopped her kicking and struggling straight away and as we went back along the edge to where we could climb down onto the dump she started smiling and waving again, just like normal. Waving to the shed, that was. (“What a divvy,” David murmured.)
We glanced back to where the track went off through the trees, the rubbish and bits of plastic and stuff hanging festooned among the branches of the big scraggly pines. Everything was motionless, and silent apart from one little bird some way off in the bushes, going peep – peep – ever so softly, like it was whispering sadly to itself.
It was a bit of a scramble down onto the dump, and David went over first and I took the fly-chair off and handed Jollyunder down to him. “Oh, you’re heavy!” he exclaimed as he took her. I thought he was joking. David was stronger than me, and I hadn’t been finding her much bother.
“Put her down then,” I said. I had got my trousers caught again, and I was determined not to get them ripped this time.
“Might as well,” David said. “They could do with having some flowers here anyway.” We walked on together towards the grey mound. The ground was a bit slippery and slimy on the surface so you had to go carefully. Jollyunder skipped on ahead; she seemed perfectly happy now and she wasn’t going very carefully, but she didn’t slip. Straight up to the shed she skipped, and threw her arms round one of the corners of it, as though it was her own dear home and she’d been away from it for years. “Shed, oh shed!” she crowed.
We were a bit spooked by that. I don’t know what we’d been expecting, really. Maybe we just wanted her to give some sign that she understood what a horrible place it was. But she was acting completely normal. A bit over the top, maybe, but pretty normal all the same. I mean, she always loved everything, and she was always happy, so I don’t know what we thought she’d be like here. The place smelled nasty, and the sun wasn’t shining any more. I don’t think it ever did on the Bad Shed, actually.
Of course we hadn’t been inside. It would have been the first thing most boys would have done, if they’d seen a ramshackle old shed – get the door open, or if they couldn’t do that, break a window or something, or pull some of the wood away to get through a crack. Any other shed we’d have done that. But we hadn’t tried to get into this shed. Perhaps we just didn’t want to know what was inside it.
But we could see that today was going to be different. Jollyunder wasn’t going to let us off with not opening it up. When she’d finished hugging the corner, she ran round to the front and got hold of the edge of the door and started rattling it like mad. “Door – door – door!” She shouted. “Open up!” She was really behaving quite strangely.
Well, we didn’t want to open the door, even now, but we could see she’d just start kicking up a row again if we didn’t do as she said. And to be fair, we’d started the whole thing, so we were feeling we ought to go through with it. The door was held shut with a chain, but the chain was just held by a staple into the wood of the wall. David took out his pocket-knife and started working away at the staple. The knife-blade broke, but by that time he had got the staple loose and we pulled it out of the woodwork so the chain fell down. “Open up! Open up!” Jollyunder chanted, over and over.
“Well, here goes,” David said and started pulling at the door. He had to lift it a bit because it had sagged on its hinges, but it opened easily enough. The nasty smell got stronger as he opened it but then it suddenly disappeared as though the fresh air had blown it away. The door was open, and we peered inside.
Oh, it was terrible. Lots of things I don’t remember so well now, but I can still remember how we opened that door, like it happened yesterday.
It wasn’t dark inside, that was the first thing you noticed. It wasn’t bright either; just grey. And it wasn’t the right size.
From the outside, the shed was just a small one – if you’d stood against any of the walls and stretched your arms out you could just about have touched two of the corners at once, that’s how small it was. But inside, it was a different size – but you didn’t notice straightaway just how different, because of the grey light inside.
It was huge. I mean, vast – really vast. And it wasn’t like a shed, it was more like a tunnel. Think of a railway station – I mean a really big one like one of the London stations, with a high, arched roof that goes stretching off into the distance. It was that kind of size, but you couldn’t make anything out clearly, because of the dim grey light. Everything seemed grey, but if you went on looking at it for long enough you noticed that the arched roof was sort of streaked with red bits – just small streaks of red here and there: blood-red, I suppose, though the grey light just made them look a dead kind of purplish colour. As our eyes got used to the strange light and the size of the place, we began to make out stuff further in – I mean, shapes of things. We didn’t go in, we just stared and stared. One of the shapes, over by the wall, seemed to be like two old men sitting facing each other at a table, as if they were playing a board game or something. Further in there was something that reminded you a bit of a station platform, or something like that. There was a bit of colour there, like a very pale yellow mixed with the grey. And there was something else that was like a big cart standing tipped at an angle, with two of its wheels taken off at one side. There seem to be a skeleton too – an animal skeleton, it was a bit like the sheep-skeleton on the dump, still kind of half upright propped against something: only it was bigger, a horse-skeleton maybe.
After we’d stared for a bit, David said, “shall we go in?”
I didn’t want to. But I said, “I don’t know.” It was strange, speaking was an effort, I was finding it hard to breathe. “What about you, Jollyunder? I said. “You seem to like this place. Are you going to go in?”
But she turned back from the doorway, and started to walk away. Walking, mark you, not jumping or skipping. She turned round once and said, “Shut the door”.
We knew at once that something was wrong. I can’t tell you exactly what, or how we knew it was wrong, because things seemed to be pretty much as usual as we went on home, the birds swooping, the trees waving, the people smiling, the dogs dashing around us. Perhaps it was something about how Jollyunder waved back, or something – as though it was a slight effort for her.
“You tired, Jolly?” David said. He was carrying her now.
“Perhaps she’s just tired,” he said. “Or maybe it’s just in our minds. That was some nasty place.”
I kept touching her hand and saying, “Are you all right, Jolly, are you all right?” – anxiously like that. She would smile at me, kind of tiredly, but she didn’t say anything.
Over the next few days it was obvious there was something really wrong. Jollyunder slept, for one thing. Before, our mother had really had her work cut out to get her to lie down and sleep at all. Now it seemed she wanted to go to bed. And two or three days afterwards she went on sleeping, right through to about eleven o’clock in the morning. That was really unheard-of. And there was something different about the way she looked around her. She didn’t seem so – I don’t know – interested. As though life had suddenly stopped being one big laugh for her.
For a week or so we tried to pretend there was nothing particularly wrong with her, we went on trying to make up excuses: David thought he remembered one time when she’d slept in, ages and ages ago. She was bound to get a bit off colour now and again. Perhaps she had the flu or the mumps or something. But it wasn’t any of those things. Jollyunder had never been ill. David and I didn’t think she was even capable of getting ill.
What it was like was as though she was fading, I mean, fading the way an old picture fades or the way a carpet fades when it’s left too long in the sun. It was as though all the colours were getting paler. About two weeks after we’d gone to the Bad Shed, I went into Jollyunder’s room and got a real shock: she looked grey. I mean, not completely grey, she still had that old-honey skin and her hair was dark and her lips were still red and everything, and her eyes dark – but there was a greyness about her. I couldn’t help thinking of the greyness we’d seen in the Bad Shed. I couldn’t help thinking that greyness had somehow got inside her and was growing outwards from the inside so that you could see it even in her face.
Eventually our mother took her to the doctor, she was so worried. But doctors aren’t much use with people like Jollyunder. He checked her over, and pushed and prodded and got her to say “ah” (which she did, and I’m sure normally she’d have said something smart, like “aa – free – car” or “aggy-baggy”, or something). In the end he shrugged and said she must be going through a phase, he couldn’t see anything wrong with her.
From there it all went from bad to worse. Jollyunder lost all her energy, her colour, her laughter. When we said, Do you want to come in your fly-chair? She just shook her head. Well the first couple of times she just shook her head. After that, she didn’t even do that, she would just kind of look away. David and I sometimes picked her up and put her in anyway, and she didn’t object, but it was like she didn’t even care if she went in or not. She stopped waving at the trees, and after a couple of times we saw that the trees had stopped waving at her. The birds always seemed to be busy with other stuff, like feeding their babies and so on. We never seemed to even see cats dogs when we were out with her, and there wasn’t a sign of any squirrels. “Hey,” David said to her once, “there aren’t any flowers in the garden. Go and have a run outside, let’s get some flowers again.” But Jollyunder just sat down and looked like she didn’t care.
That was the worst thing. We could have coped with her being ill, or having the odd off day, or getting furious and shouting and screaming and having tantrums. But what was hardest of all was the feeling that she just didn’t care. She would sit for hours now, not doing anything, not saying anything, not looking at anything. Just looking grey.
5. The Years Pass
In the end, people lost interest in her. Me and David were the first. I mean, you couldn’t blame people who didn’t know her that well: the reason they liked her was because she was always so smiling and happy herself – so they’d smile at her and she’d smile back and that made them feel good – so you can’t really blame them. If someone doesn’t make you feel good you lose interest in them, simple as that. But it was terrible that I and David lost interest. I suppose we were just young and didn’t think that much, and we just wanted to have fun, and if we couldn’t have fun with Jollyunder, we’d find something else. So we kind of forgot about her. I suppose it was excusable in a way. Maybe we just couldn’t bear to think of our lovely little Jollyunder any more – we couldn’t bear to think she’d turned into this sad little grey thing who just sat silent, staring at nothing.
And the years passed. Yes, they passed, and we grew up, but Jollyunder didn’t change, and it was like a shadow had come and settled over our home. We moved house, I mean moved right away from Wellbeath to another town, I don’t know if my parents thought it might help Jollyunder, or if it was Dad changing his job that meant we had to move. Anyway the change didn’t help him, and he was the first to crack. One night he didn’t come home from his work. It was a long time before we saw him again. He simply booked himself on a plane to New Zealand, to start what he called a new life for himself. A couple of years after that our mother took ill and died. The doctor had some special doctor’s-name for what was wrong with her, but we knew what the truth was. She’d died of a broken heart, it was as simple as that. Not because of Dad – well, maybe a bit because of Dad, but mainly because of Jollyunder.
So that left us boys to sort everything out, and sell the house and everything. It meant we had a bit of money, which was handy. We were starting out on lives of our own by this time, so we were both able to buy ourselves a little flat of our own. But of course we had to decide what to do with poor Jollyunder. Friends who knew about her said we should have her put into a home for sick kids, because we’d never be able to look after her properly. And that’s very nearly what we did. But at the last moment we decided we couldn’t do that to her. We just couldn’t. I know we didn’t much like being around her any more, and it would have been like a huge weight off our minds, just getting rid of her, getting her into some place where she wouldn’t be bothering anyone and she ‘d be properly looked after and everything, so we wouldn’t need to worry about her. But we couldn’t do it – we couldn’t actually push her away, out of our lives and out of our minds. I think deep down we needed her in some way, and perhaps we thought – deep down – she needed us too. Anyway, what we decided was that we’d take it in turns to look after her, she’d spend a couple of months with David, a couple of months with me. When it came to it, there wasn’t really a lot of looking after to do. She would eat a little and drink a little if you put food and drink to her lips; and she’d do the other stuff too, if you put her on her potty; and she’d sleep if you lay her down in the dark; and she’d wake up if you sat her up again. And she grew light, light as a bird’s bone; and the greyness about her became more like silver, so pale that sometimes she hardly even seemed to be there.
So that was about it, really. It was a bit awkward if we had girlfriends over and stuff – some of them thought we were pretty weird. But in a way that’s how we learned to sort out if we really liked someone or not: from the way they reacted to Jollyunder. I suppose you’d say she was a bit of a nuisance, really. We didn’t really think that much about her in the end, I’m afraid, she was just kind of there. She was just something you had to do – like tidying the place, or going out to work, or putting out the bins – just a chore. But I don’t want you to think we didn’t love her. Sometimes, when I was out at work, I’d suddenly think of her sitting there, alone and silent and birdbone-light, like a little ghost, and the pain and the love would get so strong and aching in me that I thought my heart would burst.
Hearts don’t burst as easy as that, however, and life has a habit of just going on. I had other things to think about, and it was easier to get on with them when you didn’t think about her. I met Vanessa, and I was really serious about her. I guess I thought we’d be setting up house together, or getting married or whatever.
Vanessa was really wonderful with Jollyunder. She’d give her all the love and attention that David and I couldn’t – well, the attention anyway, I don’t mean we didn’t love her. And a lot of girls would have stopped bothering, when nothing she did made any difference: she’d try to play games with her, or tell her stories or sing to her or take her out for walks on her back, just anything she could think of to try and bring her out of herself – got her a cat and tried to get the pair of them to strike up some kind of relationship. Cats like people who just sit still, don’t they, but of course cats also like someone who’s warm, and I don’t think there was any warmth to be had out of Jollyunder’s little body, so the cat just sat on Vanessa. Vanessa would take Jollyunder and sit her on her knee beside the cat, and that was all right, but the cat wasn’t really interested in Jollyunder, and Jollyunder wasn’t interested in the cat. But Vanessa didn’t let setbacks like that get her down, she just went on trying, trying this, trying that, always getting rebuffed, but always coming back with something else. Not entirely rebuffed maybe: Jollyunder would say her name, in a sort of greeting way. “Vanessa,” she’d say, when Vanessa came in, in a dull, tired sort of voice. “Vanessa, and Charlie” (she’d point at me); “where’s Davie?” Like she wanted us all to be together, the three of us. Sometimes I almost thought there was a spark of her old self when she said that; and that maybe Vanessa would be the one who would finally bring her back to herself. But I knew it was just a fond hope. I’d come in and find Vanessa crying to herself, just crying at the hopelessness of it all. But she never gave up on Jollyunder.
And then finally it happened, like it’d always had to happen, really. I remember one time – it was one of the times when I’d taken Jollyunder over to David’s house because it was his turn to have her for a couple of months – when we spoke about her. I mean, spoke about her properly, not just things like, she hasn’t eaten much this last week, or, I didn’t have time to wash her other clothes, you’ll have to do that – that kind of ordinary stuff. I mean, on this occasion, we spoke about what we were really thinking, deep down. David suddenly said: “We should have gone in, you know.”
I was on my bike just ready to drive off – I had an old motorbike with a sidecar, and I’d put Jollyunder in the sidecar when I was taking her over to David’s. I knew immediately what he was talking about, even though we’d never talked about the Bad Shed ever since that Easter day long ago. I knew what he was talking about, just from the way he spoke.
I said, “I thought that was the whole problem, going to the Bad Shed. We should have stayed away, we should have kept her away, we should never have taken her near that place, we should never have tried to get her to make it better.”
“No, you’re right,” David said. “We shouldn’t have. But we did, and if we were going to do it, we should have done it properly, and gone right in – right inside, as far as we could go.”
“A bit late to say that, isn’t it?” I said. David shrugged.
I started up the engine. Then after a moment, I turned it off again. “You know,” I said suddenly, “she’s still here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, she’s still here,” I said again. “Just the same as she ever was. I felt it just now, as I took her into the house. I suddenly felt, she’s all still there, our little Jolly -” I couldn’t finish what I was trying to say, my voice got all choked up and I couldn’t speak. I started up the bike again and this time I drove off.
Well, that was the start of it. Nothing happened immediately, except that David wrote me a letter saying he knew what I meant when I said she was still there, because he’d felt the same thing, and wasn’t I glad we’d decided not to put her into a Home.
But I didn’t seem to know quite how to reply to his letter, so we kind of left it at that, and after that it was a good long time before any of us did anything about it. The thing was, all those years had gone by before we’d even spoken about what happened at the Bad Shed; and now we’d actually spoken about it, it was as if something had woken up inside us again. Something – I don’t know: something brave. It was like we’d let ourselves get so sad and so downcast about Jollyunder all that time, but we’d never seriously done anything to help her. We didn’t know how to help her, of course, but that wasn’t the point: the point was, we just hadn’t tried, and we knew that had to change.
Finally, after I don’t know how long, we got on with it. I can’t even remember which one of us brought the subject up, but it was David who said, “We’ve got to go back to the Bad Shed, there’s nothing else for it.”
“I know,” I said. And so it was settled.
6. New Woeburn
Vanessa insisted on being in on it. She said if we were going back to Wellbeath she felt it was important that Jollyunder was there too, though she didn’t think we should actually take her into the Bad Shed, supposing we were able to find it (we hadn’t actually thought about that possibility – that it wouldn’t still be there). We should go and check out the place, that’s what she said, and we should have Jollyunder somewhere close by, in case we were able to work out what we would need to do next and it involved her. So she said we should get a B & B for two or three nights and she would come with us and look after Jollyunder.
Vanessa made all the arrangements, she was really good about that kind of thing. First thing she did, she came back with a list of B & Bs she’d found in the Yellow Pages, and the one at the top of her list was the “Woeburn Hotel”. That was a bit interesting, we didn’t know of any Woeburn Hotel. We wondered if old Miss Salford’s pad could have been turned into a hotel; but no, Vanessa said, it was just a small guest house, and it was just off Woeburn Road – like our house used to be. She booked us in there, a couple of twin rooms.
It sounds stupid, but we also took our sleeping-bags and a tent. We had some idea that saving Jollyunder would mean a long journey somewhere, even though we were booked into a nice comfortable B&B.
We took David’s car and we arrived in Wellbeath on a cold, dank, dismal October evening with the light just beginning to go, and the first thing we did was get lost. It was nearly ten years since we’d last set foot in the place. The city centre was all scaffolding and builder’s netting and big tall hoardings and the traffic was all sent in weird one-way streets this way and that. Remember also we’d hadn’t been car drivers when we lived there and that makes a difference too. We had to get directions on how to get out to Woeburn, how humiliating is that. Then when we got to Woeburn it was just as bad: the place was completely unrecognisable: some huge housing estate had sprung up like toadstools in the night. We finally found a road marked Woeburn Road, went down it, and there – just off it, right enough – was the Woeburn Hotel. It took us a couple of minutes to work out that it was our old house, but with the two neighbouring houses joined on now as part of it, and a new kind of extension bit built out at the back, where the gardens used to be. It was the only one of the old houses in that part of the road that was still standing, all the others had been replaced by new buildings – bungalows, and a school, and a mini-market type of shop, and so on.
Anyway, we booked in there, and that was pretty weird, but not as weird as you might think, because everything was changed so much. David and I thought that part of Vanessa and Jollyunder’s room might have been Jollyunder’s old blue-painted nursery, but we weren’t sure. Jollyunder didn’t react to being in this new (or old) place, she just sat in her backpack (Vanessa had bought a new, posher-looking thing to replace the old fly-chair) and stared. You could see from the way the hotel people treated us – sort of very respectful, a bit hushed – that they thought Jollyunder was some severely disabled kid.
So the next day David and I started out on our quest for the Bad Shed. Carrying our back-packs, with our sleeping-bags and tent, two questers into the Unknown.
Seemingly the Woeburn Estate, as they called it, was now sprawled over the entire grounds of Miss Salford’s old place. It looked like her house might still have been there, but it was part of a Leisure Complex, with a swimming pool and a gym and all. Getting away from there and going on a bit uphill the houses got gradually posher – and what there certainly wasn’t any sign of was the old grounds with their terraces and lawns and shrubs, and there were no fields, no woods, no Dump, either – and of course no gillyflowers, not that we ever talked about gillyflowers these days. There was just street after street of new houses that seemed to stretch on forever, thick green hedges, high wooden fences, and great big slaps of green grass at every corner that didn’t seem to be used for anything at all.
I suppose it wasn’t posh really, it just seemed posh compared with where we used to live. Here every house had a garage, sometimes two – there were even a few triple garages, certainly no-one parked in the street any more.
So we spent the entire morning searching through this housing estate. It seemed to go on for miles, miles of gracefully curving roads that never seemed to be taking you in the direction you thought you were going, with names like Elm Walk, and Hawthorn Row, and Beech Way, all these brand-new houses with great big gleaming windows and neat little gardens with clipped little shrubs and dark little cypress hedges and whirligig washing-lines and patios with barbecues tucked away in the corner, and trailers with dinghies on them and touring caravans propped up on concrete blocks, and not an elm or a hawthorn or a beech in sight.
“I have no idea where we are,” David said. “For some reason I thought the Bad Shed would still be here. How stupid can you get.”
“What, the Bad Shed’s still here?” I said – I’d misheard him, of course, but somehow it annoyed David that I’d got his meaning wrong, so he snapped at me (Are you going deaf or something?) and I snapped back at him (Oh, you’re always mumbling, it’s no wonder I can’t hear you) and for a moment it suddenly looked as though we were going to have a proper quarrel, like in the old days. But just then this shiny black BMW went by, with a very plush-looking lady in it with bleached-blond hair, staring at us so hard she just about drove into a lamp-post, and we realised we must have looked a bit of a sight in this place, with our back-packs on our backs and all, I suppose we must have looked dead suspicious, having a set-to in the midst of all this splendour.
“We’d better watch it, or she’ll have the police onto us,” I said. So we calmed down and went on a bit. After a while we found a little low wall where we could sit with our backs against one of those thick cypress hedges, firm enough to support us, and admire the fake-stone wall with another cypress hedge behind it, on the other side of the road. The sun shone in our faces. We were sweating and our feet were sore. We began to laugh.
“A pair of proper idiots we must look” David said. “Hey missus, is there anywhere we can camp round about here and do you mind if we use your toilet?”
I shook my head and laughed. “Actually, I do think I’m a bit deaf today,” I said. “And I don’t remember these backpacks being so heavy.”
“Yeah, I’ve done something to my back as well,” David said. “I feel like just sitting here.”
“Where do you think the Dump would be?” I said.
“Carted off in lorries and dumped somewhere else, I daresay,” he said. “Or maybe they’ve built all this lot on top of it.”
“I wouldn’t like to have my house built on top of the Bad Shed,” I said. “I bet whichever one of these it is, it’s haunted.”
“Maybe that’s what we should do,” David suggested. “Knock at all the doors and ask, is your house haunted, please?”
“Very likely,” I said. “But I don’t think anyone would answer. There doesn’t seem to be anyone actually living here, apart from the Staring Blond.”
“I suppose everyone must be out at work,” David said.
“I hope you’re not suggesting we should break into the houses,” I said.
“What, and set off the burglar alarms? That’d be a great way to find out if a place was haunted.”
We sat in silence, eating chocolate raisins, which we’d bought for old times’ sake when we’d been asking for directions the day before. They were half-melted because we were so hot and sweaty.
David spoke suddenly. “What you said just now,” he said. “Doesn’t it make you think of something?”
“I don’t know, what did I say just now?” I said.
“You said, there doesn’t seem to be anyone actually living here.”
“Yes, and?” I really wasn’t sure what he was on about.
“Don’t you remember, long ago? What our old Big Chief Nobble-Nose – Miss Salford – said. About the gillyflowers?”
“The gillyflowers?” I laughed. “Actually, yes, I do remember what she said about them.”
“If the gillyflowers got sick,” we said together, “then there was nowhere for the dead souls to go, and if that happened then they couldn’t die properly -”
” – and if the dead couldn’t die properly,” David went on –
“Then the living couldn’t live properly!” I finished. “So what?”
“Well,” David said, “I just thought. People don’t really live here, do they? Not properly.”
“What do they do then?” I said. I hadn’t quite followed the double-meaning he’d picked up in Miss Salford’s words.
“Well, they’re not here most of the time, are they?”
“I suppose they’re out at work,” I said. “But these are still their homes, aren’t they? They don’t stop being their homes just because they have to go out to work.”
“Right enough,” David replied. “But it’s still the same thing isn’t it? I mean, where’s the life round about here, you tell me. Where’s the kids playing, where’s the little shops open and the old wifes going off for their groceries? Where’s that joiner’s workshop where you could stop by and get bags of screws or some scrap wood for kindlers? During the day here, everything just dies. Everyone’s away somewhere else, working their guts out so that they can afford to live in one of these fine houses, at night they come rushing home, have their G & Ts and eat their supper, or go out and eat at a restaurant, and then sit around a bit feeling knackered staring at the telly, and then they go to bed, and then they get up in the morning and then they rush off again. They don’t really live here, do they?”
“That’s the same for most people, isn’t it?” I said
“Well, I quite enjoy my life” he said. “But I’m young and single. If I had a family I wouldn’t like to live that way. What kind of kids do they have here? Stick them in front of some screen and that’s them drugged and docile for the night I suppose. Or else spend the evening doing homework, because they’re so terrified they won’t get the exams that’ll get them the right kind of job so they can buy the kind of house they’ll want to live in in the same kind of place. And so it goes on.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “so how should we live?”
He said, “I just mean that there may be better ways to live. That if you live like this you’re not living properly. And let’s face it – maybe they live like this because the gillyflowers got sick.”
It felt good hearing him talk like that. I think there is a time, when you’re starting to grow up, that you do think, God, where’s it all going? What’s it all for? What do I really want life to be like? David was saying exactly what I’d already started to think myself. But all I actually said was, “Well, that’s pretty interesting. And will that help us to find the Bad Shed, then?”
And David said, “Nope.” And that was that. We went on sitting on our little wall, and thinking about Miss Salford and her gillyflowers and not knowing what to do.
After a while we got up, because we thought we might be bending someone’s cypress hedge too much. “I suppose we’ll just have to go home then,” I said. “We’re going to look pretty silly, but what else can we do?”
“I know what I’m going to do,” said David. “I’m going to get drunk. I never got drunk in Wellbeath before.”
“How many pubs do you suppose there are here?” I wondered.
“Dunno,” he said again. “Why don’t we find out?”
I didn’t argue, though I did wonder what Vanessa would think of us. “Some heroes, you, she’ll say. Set off to save poor little Jollyunder, and finish up doing a pub-crawl of the entire town. What’s she going to do meanwhile?”
Of course, there’s always more to a decision than the thing you actually decide. I know that now, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
7. Magnetic Fields
The first thing we did was to get rid of our back-packs, because they were a bit of a nuisance anyway, so we told Vanessa what we were going to do, and being Vanessa she went along with it all right, just told us to sleep out on a park bench if we got too slaughtered, and said she would cope.
Well, we had a right old time of it. I never remembered too much about it, except that I had to keep running to the toilet, which was weird for me, and I only mention it because of what happened later on. I mean, I might have been feeling more anxious about the whole thing than I’d realised, but I don’t think that was really it. Anyway – we went everywhere, we sat in posh pubs, we stood in working-men’s pubs, we huddled in pubs where you couldn’t hear yourself think for the music, we sat in crowded pubs, we sat in sad half-empty pubs, and we sat in some right dives where we felt in fear of our lives. We talked to lots of people, we met a few that we’d been at school with, and after closing-time we climbed up on statues in the park, we collected traffic cones and arranged them in a big triangle in Church Square.
So, we were up the whole night, we were still marching around somewhere that we didn’t know as the dawn came up, and then we made it back into the centre of town just in time for the first cafes to be opening, and we got ourselves a proper cooked breakfast in one of them. Then we sat around in various other places, drinking cups of coffee, until opening time came and we wondered if we were going to go back on our little bender for another day. But then all of a sudden we felt fed up with it all and decided it really was time we were getting back to see how Vanessa and Jollyunder were doing.
“One last little half-pint,” David said. This was getting on for lunch-time.
“Yeah,” I agreed. But inside I was starting to feel tired and hopeless. I didn’t know why we’d gone on that particular little binge, but it seemed like some kind of way of running away from reality. And now we had to face it.
So we went into this little pub called The Holly Bush. It was quite near the centre of town, but we seemed to have missed it when we were in that part before. It was a quiet dark little place, and there were a couple of guys standing at the bar there in workmen’s overalls. We got chatting to them, and they turned out to be electricity board workers; they liked coming into this place because it was so quiet and no-one would see them. They weren’t supposed to drink when they were working because, well, no one likes the idea of guys falling about the place with live cables in their hands.
“So,” David said, joking-like, “when there’s a big power cut and the whole of Wellbeath grinds to a standstill, that’s because you boys have been in the Holly Bush and then gone and snipped the wrong wire.”
Well, they laughed and said they had never made that kind of mistake and they were always very careful. One of them was called Andy and the other one was called Mike. Mike was the older one, and he suddenly turned to me, very serious-faced, and said, practically whispering, “Mind you, there’s some things you come across – there’s times you need to go and get a drink, just to steady yourself up.”
“What kind of things?” I said. I thought he must be meaning near-misses they must have had – putting the red together with the black or something daft.
“Well, I don’t know,” Mike sort of mumbled and he and Andy exchanged are weird kind of look – frightened, I would have called it.
“It’s the electricity,” Andy said. “You get queer effects, sometimes. Lights and… Halos – just queer effects. Force-fields, I suppose.”
“I don’t know about force-fields,” Mike said. “But when you see a brick wall just – vanishing in front of your eyes… You know?”
“No,” David said. “I’ve never seen a brick wall vanishing. Not when I was sober anyway.”
“It was only the one now, Mike,” Andy said. “Don’t exaggerate.”
“I know it was only the once,” Mike said, a bit snappish. “I never said there was more than the once. But it vanished, all the same. You were there too, you saw it.”
“I know, I know,” Andy said. “But I still say it was a force-field. It was just a hallucination.”
“What did you see?” David asked, “could you see right through the brick wall, or what?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mike said. “It was late one afternoon in January or so – it was dark, we were just about to pack up and go home. It was this little junction box up in the Woeburn Estate, it’s quite a new one and it’s always caused problems. They’ve got it in a brick hut for some reason, not just an exterior steel box like the usual. A couple of our guys refuse to go to it any more. They reckon there some kind of magnetic field there, down in the bedrock, and the thing should be sited somewhere else, they reckon it’s dangerous. Anyway, we were there, as I say, and it was dark outside, and I was just screwing the cover plate back onto the junction box – it’s mounted on the wall, this box, so I was standing looking at it, and then I just kind of glanced past it – and the wall wasn’t there any more! Brick wall, it had just vanished.”
“And could you see through it?” David asked again. He was looking pretty excited. I wasn’t so excited then – well, I don’t know, maybe I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but somehow I hadn’t picked up when he mentioned the Woeburn estate.
“Well it can’t have been,” Mike answered. “That’s what I’m telling you: it was dark outside, but it wasn’t darkness I could see. But, it wasn’t bright either, you understand, it was just kind of grey. And – I don’t quite know how to describe it – red streaks. And – you could see something, but it wasn’t clear: like something in the distance.”
“Low-frequency sound, something like that,” Andy put in. “Like the Yanks use, it’s the latest secret weapon. Confuse the enemy, like…”
“What Andy’s trying to say,” Mike explained, “is that we got some very nasty vibrations. I can’t say it any better than that. Just – we were just real shaken up. I’d finished screwing my cover on by that time, and I threw my tools into my box and we just got the hell out of there as quick as we could.”
“And that’s when we discovered The Holly Bush,” Andy said with a grin. “And life has never been the same again.”
David and I didn’t hang about. We got rid of Mike and Andy as quick as we could and we hightailed it up to the Woeburn estate again. No that’s not quite accurate, we got a taxi – that’s the kind of heroes we were – but you see we were in a desperate hurry by now. I mean, it was just as well we’d gone on our boozing spree, because we’d never have met in with Mike and Andy otherwise; but we felt we’d been wasting time all the same.
“Where about on Woeburn estate, gents?” The driver called back to us.
“We’re visiting an old pal” – David was quite good with quick lies invented on the hoof, so to speak – “and we lost the address, but our pal said that his house was close beside some kind of little brick hut that the electricity boys use. I don’t know if that’s any help to you.”
“I know exactly where you mean,” the taxi driver said. “There’s a bunch of kids always hang out there for some reason, causing trouble. The police are always getting called up there.”
The moment we got out of the taxi we both felt the same thing: a sort of weird, floaty, detached feeling, as though we didn’t quite belong inside our bodies, or we weren’t walking properly on the pavement, or the pavement was made of some kind of spongy stuff that we couldn’t put our feet right down on. There again, we both were suffering from – well, let’s say lack of sleep, I’m not saying we had a full-scale hangover.
The taxidriver told us the place we were making for was just round the corner; but ‘just round the corner’ in the Woeburn estate doesn’t always mean what you’d think it would. Just when we thought we must be round the corner finally, we realised the road was actually making another of those graceful senseless curves that all the roads in the Woeburn estate made, and in a moment we seemed to be as lost as ever. Maybe the taxidriver had got confused, I don’t know.
Anyway we started searching up and down a bit and then we began to argue about if we were somewhere we’d been before, or even come round in a circle. Everything looked so much the same it really was impossible to tell for sure. I said, “I’ve got a sore head, I left my paracetamol in my backpack last night.”
“You look rough,” David said, not very sympathetic.
“You look old,” I said back.
Actually, he did. It was weird. Maybe there was something about the light, he just didn’t look his usual self. He seemed to be kind of stooped – maybe that was just hangover, and his face looked kind of grey and lined, dark shadows under his eyes – yes, old.
Some groups of kids started passing by, I suppose it was their lunch-hour. They would look down at their feet as they passed us, and then when they’d passed we’d hear them bursting out giggling. That really is annoying. We did think of asking them if they knew the way to this electricity hut, but after we’d had the looking down, bursting out giggling treatment a couple of times, we felt too annoyed to speak to them about anything. Just as well, it would have looked a bit weird. The aliens have landed, please direct us to an electricity hut, we want to take over the world.
We were both feeling a bit snappy and quarrelsome by this time, but then David suddenly had a bright idea. “Magnetic fields have a pattern,” he said. “I’ve been thinking all these curvy streets here might actually be following the lines of a magnetic field. And you see, these kids may be wandering along the street, not so much because they’re following the street but because they’re going along the lines of force without even realising – the same way they say sheep and cattle do on a hillside. So some time or other – maybe – they’re going to be wandering towards the centre of the field.”
“You mean the hut?” I said. It sounded a bit daft.
“Exactly,” he said. “So maybe if we tail them, they’ll take us where we want to go.”
“Like, follow a bunch of schoolkids around?” I said. “That’s going to look good.”
“Come on, let’s do it,” he said. And we did. Would you believe it? In a couple of minutes we had found the place. Don’t ask me to explain that. It could just be that youngsters really are more sensitive to vibrations or something: they thought they were just wandering about a bit aimlessly, maybe even following each other’s tracks, but it really looked like their lunchtime walk always took them past the electricity hut.
It was up a little cul-de-sac, and we got the distinct impression we were actually more or less at the place where the taxi dropped us off, but somehow we hadn’t noticed. The kids would walk up this little cul-de-sac on the one side of the road, then wander past the hut and back out on the other side of the road and then continue their journey on the main road. They all went the same direction so no-one got in anyone else’s way. We wondered what sort of trouble was so bad that the police had to be called. Maybe people see a bunch of kids hanging around and just assume trouble, or maybe the force-field turned into something different at night-time. At any rate they didn’t hang about there in their lunch-break.
The hut itself was a lot smaller than we’d expected, just like a little brick shed tucked behind a fence in someone’s garden, it would have been easy to walk past and never even notice it. We didn’t realise about the steps down: I suppose it must have been half underground. But we noticed the sign about Danger of death – keep out on the door, so we knew we were in the right place. Apart from that, the first thing I noticed was how there was nothing growing round the shed – I mean no grass or weeds or anything, just this nasty grey gravel. I suppose they would have put weedkiller down or something, but all the same: there was just a look about it which reminded me of the grey mound where the Bad Shed used to stand.
Of course there was a padlock on the gate, and an even bigger one on the door of the hut. Neither of us knew how to pick a lock. So what were we going to do? One thing was obvious: we couldn’t try anything now, in broad daylight We had to make plans.
We walked back into the town and visited a few shops to get some equipment. Then we had to wait until night. We went back to the hotel again to let Vanessa know our plans.
Vanessa looked at us suspiciously. “Yuck,” she said. “You two look grey – what in God’s name have you been up to?” She must just have been meaning our hung-over, sleep-deprived look, but it was a curious thing to say for all that. Or I thought so, anyway, especially in view of what happened later on.
We had a brief debate about the idea of taking Jollyunder along with us. In a way it seemed appropriate, in another way it was just repeating what we’d done ten years before, which seemed to have been what caused all the damage. Vanessa was dead against it. She’d spent the whole time just sitting around the room with Jollyunder, sometimes watching television, sometimes just being with her. That’s what she liked best, she said – David and I could never get it.
So in the end we had a little sleep and then we set off with nothing but the equipment we’d bought in town, which was a big hefty wire-cutter, and a hacksaw, just in case the wire-cutter wasn’t enough, and a decent torch. We didn’t go too early, in case we ran into the swarms of naughty youngsters who were always supposed to be there. It was about midnight by the time we’d found our way back to the place (we’d kept a note of the various roads, so we could get there easily). Woeburn Estate was very quiet, and there weren’t many lights on in the houses: I daresay everyone there got up really early in the morning to travel to work, so they’d need to be in bed by eleven or something. It was a misty kind of night too, no moonlight to show us up.
The padlocks weren’t too difficult, though we had to use a combination of wire-cutter and hacksaw, and the sound of the hacksaw seemed deafening in the quietness of the night, so we were in a fair old state of terror by the time we’d finally managed to get that bit of the job finished. Then we got the door open, and we crouched in and got down the steps inside to where we could stand up properly, and we looked, and by Jees, we were there again at last – we didn’t even have to wait for the brick wall to disappear, like poor old Andy and Mike did. It was as though time had collapsed, and all the years since the first time we opened the door of the Bad Shed and now had simply vanished, and we were standing back at the point where our lives had been altered forever.
Nothing had changed since then, apart from there was a great big electrical box in the way and lots of cables in their steel sheaths. We scrambled past all that pretty easily and – yes, like I say, it was exactly the same. In a way that was the scariest thing of all. The same huge grey, red-streaked tunnel arch, and way down in the distance the two old boys sitting playing their game of chess, or whatever it was, and –
“Come on,” said David roughly, “let’s not hang about – let’s get down there this time.”
“I don’t know if I can,” I said. “I feel like my legs are made of lead.” I didn’t like admitting that, because David had always been braver and better than me, and I was pretty sure he’d start calling me a coward and a pussy now.
But he spoke to me gently, and I really appreciated that. “I know,” he said, “I feel just the same. We could be looking down here into the end of everything – the end of us, anyway. But see, what I’m thinking is – well, the last ten years have been sad, haven’t they? I mean, with Dad and Mum, and Jollyunder there behind it all. Sad, and difficult as well. I don’t want to have that all my life. I want to try and make a change to that, while we’re still young and have a chance to change it. I don’t want things to go on as they’ve been – and I think I’m prepared to risk quite a bit if we’ve got a chance of changing them.”
“How much are you prepared to risk, though?” I said. “There’s something about this place that makes me think it might be everything.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “But I still want to do it.”
I wasn’t at all sure that I did. But I wasn’t prepared to let him go on alone and get all the glory – or whatever. So I went for it – we went for it.
8. Into the Grey
It’s quite hard describing what it was like, going through that grey tunnel. I mentioned the strange floaty feeling as we were tramping along the pavements of the Woeburn Estate: well, it was a bit like that. There was that kind of strange sponginess when we put our feet down on the indistinct, slightly misty floor. Yes, in a way it felt like walking on mist. And we were cold, and we were frightened. I can’t tell you what of, because there didn’t seem to be anything particularly to fear. Just the Unknown, I suppose. This went on for a good while. Eventually we found we were approaching the table where the two old fellows were playing their game of chess. A queer thing happened then. We thought we’d been going straight towards them – David had just muttered something, through chattering teeth, about “seeing if we couldn’t give them a hand to get their effing game finished finally” – but just as we thought we were coming up to their table we found we’d veered over to the left-hand side of the tunnel, and they were over on the right, and there seemed to be some kind of darkness in the middle of the floor, as though the mist covering the floor had rolled back a little and revealed some kind of a gash, or chasm.
We didn’t think twice about it: we knew we couldn’t cross. This chasm was there – it was like instinct, the way we knew it – it was there for our protection, to stop us crossing over to those two old codgers.
They didn’t look dangerous. They looked up at us as we passed by on the other side of the tunnel. They didn’t wave at us or call hello or anything, they just stared. They didn’t look evil or anything – just kind of blobby and indistinct, a bit shabby and murky….
I’m not explaining this very well, and I’m not getting across the main thing about them. They were horrific. When they looked up at us everything inside me kind of turned over with this sick horror. I thought I was going to throw up or fall onto my knees and have a heart attack or something. David felt the same thing too, he told me later.
The feeling passed. After they’d fallen behind we felt more or less all right again, just cold, as before, and the same vague kind of fear eating away at us. We didn’t talk about them, or why they’d made us feel so bad, we went on our way, because now the other things we’d seen in the distance began to get a bit clearer, and we hurried towards them. In fact, I think we must have felt cheered up a bit, in a funny kind of way. The way that chasm had opened up between us and the demon chess-players – I think I could call them that – it suddenly made me think that there was something, or someone, else with us as we went through that place – a force or a power protecting us. That feeling became so strong that in the end I had to blurt it out to David.
“I think she’s here with us,” I whispered to him.
“I know, I think so too,” he whispered back. “I felt it just now, it felt like I was carrying her in her old back-pack chair and she was whispering in my ear.”
“That’s exactly what I thought,” I said. I had to feel behind me, because I thought I must have my backpack with me, and that’s what made me imagine I’d been carrying Jollyunder; but of course they’re back at the hotel.”
Finally we came to what we’d been heading for. It was exactlly like we’d thought: like an old station platform, an old country station, with a long sort of shelter where the ticket office was and some benches, all painted with a shabby kind of pale-yellow paint. And there was a railway line down beside the platform – it followed the line of the grey tunnel and it made me think of the chasm that had separated us from the two old chess-players, except it wasn’t a chasm now, just an ordinary railway line running down the middle of the station with a platform on either side.
“Look,” said David – he wasn’t whispering any more, he was speaking in a normal voice, as if arriving at this deserted little railway station had somehow brought us back into the ordinary world – “look, there’s the train!”
That was a joke of course. What he was actually pointing to, sitting down on the line just next to our platform, was a heavy-looking four-wheeled wooden cart, and this cart was yoked up to two of the most dejected, mangy, decrepit beasts you have ever seen.
One of them was a horse and the other was – an ox I suppose, anyway it looked a bit like a cow and it had long, down-curved horns, it didn’t stand as tall as the horse but it was broader. But both animals were the same kind of colour, a sort of yellow-brown – a strange colour, maybe a bit like a pale kind of Jersey cow, except that most of the Jersey cows you see are pretty glossy kind of beasts, and these were the very opposite. Mangy! Even looking down at them down from the distance of the station platform, you could see the mites crawling about under the hair. And thin! They were like skeletons with the hide stretched over the bones – in places it looked as though the bone had actually come through the skin. And they just stood there, gazing at the ground while big yellow-brown flies buzzed around their eyes.
Well, that was a pretty depressing sight, so we turned away from the “train” and had a look round the station. I mentioned there was a ticket office there, but it seemed to be boarded up. We went over to it anyway, and there we saw on the counter, almost invisible under a thick layer of brown dust, a couple of square pieces of yellow card. We exchanged a look, and then David picked one of them up and blew on it to get rid of the dust. It was covered over in brown scribbles, which may have been writing, or I suppose they could just have been stains left by the dust. “Tickets?” said David, forcing a grin.
Just then I realised there was an eye watching us through the a crack in the boards over the ticket office window. It was a bright sharp eye, and it was watching us intently, but I couldn’t see the rest of the face. “Are these for us?” I asked in a wavering voice.
“Where are you going?” this sharp, cracked little voice came at us from behind the boards.
We exchanged another glance. We don’t know didn’t seem a very good reply. “Woeburn?” David tried.
“You’ve already crossed the Woe-bourn,” the sharp little voice snapped back. There was a short silence, that was when I registered the voice had pronounced the name slightly differently.
“Do you know anything about Jollyunder?” I said.
There was a sigh from behind the boards – an impatient, tutting sigh. “Oh, just take the damn things,” the voice said. “The train only goes the one place anyway.”
“Do we pay for them?” David asked.
“Of course,” the voice said.
Another tutting sigh, even more impatient this time. “Oh just go and get on, will you. We don’t have forever.”
“Is that the train there?” I said, pointing to the ramshackle cart.
“Well what do you expect, a golden carriage pulled by winged horses?” the voice squeaked, really annoyed-sounding. Then the eye disappeared as if whoever-it-was in the ticket office had given up on us completely.
“Come on,” David said. “We might as well give it a go.”
We went over to the old cart and looked down into it. There were some woodwormed-looking benches in it but that was all. The two animals were standing just as they had been before, not moving a muscle – not that they exactly had any muscles to move. We got down over the edge of the platform and got into our seats pretty gingerly, because it felt as if the whole thing could fall apart if we leaned too heavily on anything; I mean the wood felt completely rotten. The whole cart was in the same kind of condition. The sides and the floor were all full of splits and rotted-away splinters, and down through a hole in the floor you could see the iron axle of the back wheels, and it didn’t look in much better condition either, all pocked and pitted with rust.
But after a couple of minutes we heard a faint creaking, groaning sound, and we realised we were moving!
Well, when I say moving – we were just moving. I suppose it was a wonder those half-dead beasts could pull the thing at all, but the speed they actually went at would have made a snail seem like a speed-boat. To begin with we thought, well, maybe they’re just getting going, maybe they’ll gather a little momentum in a moment. But they didn’t. The platform crawled past, the station shelter fell behind after about quarter of an hour, and our train journey looked like being the longest journey to nowhere that there’d ever been..
After about half an hour of this nonsense David exclaimed, “I’m not having any more of this!” He got to his feet and went to look over the edge of the cart. “It’s just the same kind of ground as it was before, we’d be as well walking it.,” he said.
He started to get his leg up on the side, meaning to climb out. But just then a voice spoke, very close, very snappish, and he froze, still standing with one leg up on the side: “Get back down, boy, are you trying to get us all killed?”
It was the voice of the ticket clerk, no doubt of that – and there! as I peered over in the direction it had come from, just beside where David was, looking like he’d been glued to the side of the cart, I saw a splintered board and that same eye glaring through. I leapt to my feet and stood beside David, not to get out but to peer over the edge.
There was no-one there. I dropped down and peered through the splintered board, but now the eye had disappeared. Had the ticket clerk come with us? If so, where was he now? Under the cart perhaps, or had he jumped off? But there was no sign of him, wherever I looked. “Better do as he says,” I told David. “There’s more to this cart than meets the eye.”
We sat back down on our benches and promised each other to be as good as gold for the rest of the journey, however long it took. The horse and the ox grunted and heaved, and the cart creaked and squeaked, but apart from that there was no sound to be heard.
We stared about us. There was nothing but grey, occasionally streaked with red. It didn’t even feel as though we were in a tunnel any more: just formless grey, above, below, to either side. I have no idea how long the journey lasted. The only thing that broke it up was that occasionally we passed through other stations, more or less like the one we’d got on at. Each time it took an age to get through them from one end to the other, and we were sorely tempted to leap out and let the wretched cart go on to wherever it was going without us. The only thing that stopped us was that, at each of the stations, either on one platform or on the other, there was a table at which sat two old men playing chess.
I don’t know if it was the same two each time. They all looked pretty alike; I don’t know if it was the same game of chess they were playing, either. We’d liked to have stood up and had a squint at it; but we couldn’t, you understand. That same sick horror swept over us every time we saw them, and they looked up and stared at us. The first time it happened we tried to stare back – I even heard David clearing his throat, as if he was going to try and say something to them – but the other times we just crouched down in our seats and kept them out of sight over the edge of the cart. They were terrible, terrible – the worst thing I’ve ever seen, though I still don’t know why.
We could have been days in that cart. We were cold and we were hungry – when we weren’t feeling sick, that is – and we were dismal and we were bored to death. Nothing ever happened, we ran out of things to say to each other, we may have slept sometimes for all I know, but if we did we just woke up again in exactly the same place, on the same miserable benches, with the same numb backsides and stiff all over.
One thing that didn’t happen though – I stopped needing to pee. That was a bit of a relief, because it had been getting me down the night and the day before and I’d started to get slightly anxious about the thought of sitting confined in this wagon for next to forever. Anyway I was too thankful to stop and wonder what all that was about. Perhaps the real reason was that the journey didn’t actually take any time at all – who can tell.
It did end, that’s for sure. It ended when the cart stopped, though it was a while before we realised it had stopped. It was the silence from the poor beasts pulling us that told us in the end – I mean, the cart actually went on creaking, though the squeaking of the axles stopped. When we realised we’d stopped we stood up to see what the horse and the ox were doing. For a moment we saw them standing there, just as they had before – and then, right before our very eyes, the skin and the flesh dropped off them, like it had all gone dry and crumbly, and left them still standing there, a pair of bleached-bone skeletons. That was pretty freaky, but we didn’t have much time to waste on being amazed because, as I say, the creaking of the cart still went on, and the reason pretty soon became clear when the whole thing suddenly gave way and we dropped crash onto the ground in a cloud of woodworm dust. All that was left of our fine train was a pile of dust and the two iron axles lying on the ground with the iron wheel-rims lying on their sides on top of hem. And suddenly we heard the voice of the ticket-clerk calling, “Terminus! Everybody out!” and we blinked, and it seemed like the sun came out, blinding white on a snowy landscape.
9. Into the White
In fact it wasn’t a snowy landscape, and the sun wasn’t shining. It was simply a white landscape. It was white because it was a nothing landscape. It was like a landscape sketched out on white paper, before any of the details and colours have been filled in. Perhaps it was because of being in the grey tunnel for so long, our eyes had been affected and we couldn’t make things out properly, I don’t know: a little later on we found a different explanation for the white landscape – a much scarier one – though I’m not totally sure if even that was the right one. But for now the best explanation seemed to be that our eyes had been affected by the strange light of the grey tunnel, and so we set off along a white road between white fields, that you could only tell one from the other because they were marked by thin grey lines like pencil lines in a sketch book. In the distance – well, not far off in fact, but it looked like the distance – was a darkish smudge in the white. That was the only thing around that looked like anything, so we headed for it, and anyway it was where the road seemed to be taking us..
In a way, going through a completely white landscape was quite like going through the grey tunnel. There was no sense of progress, so we didn’t have much sense of time passing either. But pretty soon we got filled again with a kind of dull boredom.
“Who do you think they were?” I said – more for something to say than because I wanted to talk about them. I meant the two old chess-players. “What do you think they were?”
“Spooky,” was all David said.
But I went on asking, “Do you think – I mean, is it possible, – that they were actually us? What we’ll look like?”
David frowned, “When we’re old, you mean?”
“Maybe,” I shrugged.
He shrugged too. After a bit he said, “I can’t think of you as old. I don’t think I could.”
I said, “I never think of me as young – particularly. Just as me.”
“If I think of you,” he said, “what I’d usually see is your face that day you got your new trousers caught in the barbed wire at the Dump. Your leg was bleeding and your face was all red and there were great big blobby tears coming out of your eyes because you thought Mum was going to kill you for what you’d done to your long pants. Shock-horror red-face whinge-boy, that’s what I see.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said. “I’ve got a slightly more dignified picture of you – probably you standing over me with a fist about to smash my face in. But however much we keep these pictures of each other, that’s not what we’re going to look like from the outside – it’s not going to be how other people see us.”
“Na, stuff it,” he said. “I don’t want to think about them. I certainly don’t want to see them again, that’s all I know.”
It wasn’t long before we realised that the smudge we were heading for was actually a town – quite a big town really – and we reached its outskirts a lot sooner than we thought we would. Perhaps we’d been belting along the white road without realising it in our hurry to get out of all that blank whiteness and into something that felt like something. Anyway, we started passing the kind of places you get on the outskirts of town, factory kind of places, or big superstores, a few houses that looked as though they might have been farmhouses long ago, before the town spread out and swallowed up all the countryside round about. But it was weirdly quiet, considering we seemed to be on a main road leading into town; and there was something about it all that seemed kind of shabby and uncared-for: as though it had all been prosperous a few years ago but then they’d come on hard times and everything had gone bad. There were big car-parks outside the superstore-places, but they were practically empty and there were weeds growing up everywhere through the broken tarmac. Everything was looking ordinary – I mean the whiteness had gone: it didn’t look ordinary the way everything looked sad and dilapidated. There were lots of windows boarded up with faded old bits of board. Some of the factories and houses looked completely deserted, but not all. Some cars passed us as we went along. I think that was the first really unusual thing we noticed, though we didn’t notice it straight away: the cars were too quiet. We just glanced up, saw these cars going by and thought, oh yes, cars – and it wasn’t until a few moments later we thought – God, they’re weirdly quiet. I thought my hearing had been affected – well, I’d thought that already, when I’d misheard something David said, back in the Woeburn Estate.
Although most of the place just looked kind of run down and dilapidated and sad, there was the odd building we passed which looked worse – like, that had a feeling of danger about it. Danger from what? I don’t know. One of them was this huge black building – I mean I don’t know if it was dirt or what that made it black, we only got a glimpse of it through a ten-foot mesh fence, away back from the road, half-hidden by some other buildings. It looked spooky, huge and silent and spooky. It didn’t have boarded-up windows, I think it was bars across them. It could have been a prison. There was a sign on the gate. It looked like Deadlock, but the other words were all rusted over so you couldn’t read them.
“Why would anyone called a place Deadlock?” I asked
“Somewhere that looks like that?” David snorted. “Anyway, we don’t know it is called that – you can’t read it very well – how do we know it’s not some foreign-language word?”
We went on walking, towards what we thought must be the centre of this town, not really knowing why we were doing it; and we were passing some parked cars when I suddenly said to David, “Do you recognise any of these cars?”
“No,” he replied.
“Do you think we have actually got into somewhere foreign?” I said.
“Half the cars you normally see are foreign,” he answered. “We’d surely recognise some of them here.”
“Have we been transported to another planet, another dimension?” I asked. The idea didn’t actually seem quite as frightening as you might have thought.
“They seem to speak English in this other dimension,” David answered, nodding over to an advertisement hoarding across the road, where the words had just flashed up, LEAVE IT ALONE, IT’LL KILL YOU! scrolling across under a man with a big grin on his face who was reaching for a bottle – some kind of booze, I suppose.
It was a moving advert, did I say that? I mean, it was a moving picture, like at the Pictures. As we watched, the man grabbed hold of the bottle and slugged it all down, then he clutched his throat and fell down and writhed about with his eyes popping out. Then he died, and worms started crawling out of his mouth and nose and ears, and his eyes started dissolving into puddles. Then suddenly he leaped to his feet again with a big grin on his face and the bottle came floating over towards him and the whole thing started again. I don’t know if it was an advert that was supposed to put you off booze or if it was some kind of sick joke actually advertising the booze . Anyway, the words were in English: LEAVE IT ALONE, IT’LL KILL YOU!
Silent cars, moving billboards…. “Do you think we’ve moved into the future?” I said. I felt strangely matter-of-fact about the thought.
But David said, “Actually, I think we’re inventing it.”
“What, the place?” I said.
“No,” he said, “the future. When you think about it, that’s probably why the future happens anyway – because we invent it. It’s just, we’re seeing it happening here, that’s a bit unusual.”
I thought about the landscape before we came into town and I thought he could have a point. The landscape would have been white because we hadn’t yet invented its details – we were moving too fast, somehow, for the details to be able to form.
That was a scary thought. Just finding ourselves in the “real” future didn’t seem so bad somehow: but finding ourselves in a future that was just being invented, and hadn’t really been sorted out yet, that didn’t feel very comfortable. I can’t explain why – perhaps we just need to feel real, or something, so we prefer the idea that Something out there has made Reality for us, and all we have to do is go and be real in it. The idea that it comes out of us, so to speak – no, that’s a different matter. I tried to get some of this across to David, not very successfully.
“Best forget about the white fields,” he advised. “Let’s just concentrate on where we are now. We must be here for a reason.”
“Why must we be here for a reason?” I asked. I was feeling distinctly shaky now.
“Don’t ask that kind of question either,” said David. “We’ve got to keep our wits about us. Don’t start going mad on me.”
“Points to remember,” I muttered. “Don’t go mad. Be sane. It’s easy, if you just tell yourself nicely…..”
“All right,” said David. “First, where are we? Wellbeath?”
“Could be,” I said through clenched teeth.
“All right, so whereabouts should we head for in Wellbeath?”
“Woeburn,” I said.
“Which direction would it be in, then?” he said.
I shrugged. I could hardly tell up from down, let alone north from south. I didn’t recognise a thing. “How far into the future do you think we are?” I said.
“I wonder how these cars work?” he said. “they’re obviously not petrol. I don’t think they look like electric, either: look at the shape of them, they’re build for speed. Nuclear-powered? I don’t know, we could be twenty or thirty years into the future.”
“Could it all have changed this much in thirty years?” I said.
But David had been distracted. “Maybe that’s a thought, you know,” he said. “We’d get about quicker if we were in one of these cars, wouldn’t we?”
“We’d get lost quicker,” I said. “You’re not thinking of starting your life in the future as a car-thief, are you?”
Maybe that’s why we didn’t feel as scared in this place as we ought to have done. Because it wasn’t like our adult life, when we were supposed to be in charge, and responsible and everything. It was more like we were boys again, off having some adventure or other, each relying on the other to keep brave. Not that we ever went in for car theft or joyriding when we were boys, I don’t mean that. I just mean that having each other helped us cope with all the weirdness, that’s all.
“Well, might as well give it a go,” David said, and sauntered over to one of the parked cars.
You couldn’t see inside properly, because the windows were some kind of strange semi-reflective glass that showed things up all shadowy. But we could make out a steering-wheel all right; and we could see there wasn’t anyone inside, either. The paintwork had a kind of sheeny, moving surface which you didn’t notice unless you were close up to it, almost as though there were shadows chasing each other across it. “I bet one of these dark bits acts like a door-handle,” David said. “You just have to know where it is.” He laid his hand on the door.
Of course, we should have known. The future? The one good guess any of us should be able to make about the future is that it’ll be nastier than the present. What made us think they wouldn’t have got on top of car-theft in the future? The moment David touched that car the most appalling racket started up. A screaming, bleeping siren noise, blaring through our skulls – it made you dizzy and sick with sheer, high-pitched sound – and not just that: it also froze David’s hand to the door. He couldn’t move it, he couldn’t move himself either, I could see him there bolt upright, shaking slightly, with a fixed grimace on his face. I thought: he’s getting an electric shock – that’s what it looked like. I had the presence of mind not to grab him to pull him off, because I could have got stuck too, but I didn’t know what else to do. But just then this running figure came hurtling round the corner, all dressed in black, flappy kind of clothes, leaped into the air and caught David on the chin with a tremendous flying kick. He went down like a ninepin crash onto the pavement. The figure pelted off down the street, leaping over potholes and broken bits of pavement (there were lots of these) and out of sight into a side-street.
David groaned and that brought my attention back from the runner. He looked grey and haggard – in fact his hair seemed to have gone actually grey. I thought: well, that must have been the electric shock, I’ve heard of that. Apart from that he seemed not too bad, just a bit shaken up, and he got up onto his feet when I gave him a heave.
“Oh, my back,” he groaned, clutching at the base of his back.
“What, did you hit it?” I said.
“No, just stiff,” he replied.
I realised my back felt all stiff as well. I thought I must have come out in sympathy.
We didn’t see any immediate reaction to the alarm going off, but David said, “There’s bound to be some kind of alert Centre – come on!” And he took off running down the street. I followed, taking, as usual, a bit longer to work out what he meant – basically, that the police would probably turn up at any moment. So I caught up with him, and kind of steered him into the side-street the flying kicker had disappeared in, and we ran for a bit further, and then after a bit we stopped running and stood bent over, clutching our knees and panting and wheezing and sweating.
“Do you think we’re all right?” David coughed, looking around. “No sign of pursuit?”
“You realise we were helped?” I gasped.
“No idea,” I said. “Just came out of nowhere and kicked you off.”
“I don’t remember,” he said. “What kind of person?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “It all happened too fast. Young, I would say. That’s all I could make out.”
“Don’t know why we’re so puffed out by a bit of running,” David said. “Is there something wrong with the air here? And my heart’s going like a hammer.”
We looked about. Bad air didn’t seem an unlikely explanation What a dismal place it was! At first we thought we’d got onto a patch of waste ground, because wherever we looked we saw patches of dockens and nettles and thorn-thickets, all choked up with litter and rubbish, but presently we noticed there were houses about as well, though they all had a pretty ramshackle look.
And David said, “If this is the future, that explains about our age.”
“What about our age?” I said. It still hadn’t properly dawned on me.
“Face it, Bro,” David said. “We’re old. We are actually old. I can feel it – I feel stiff, and I’m out of puff. And if I didn’t believe it, all I’ve got to do is look at you, and I can see what I feel like. Your hair’s grey, you’re stiff, you can see that by the way you move, your colour’s not good, and you’re wrinkled as hell. You’re an old man. And so am I.”
It was a tricky moment. I say tricky – of course I mean it was terrifying: the only thing that made it not as terrifying as it should have been was, I suppose our adrenalin must have been pumping around, stopping us feeling too bad about anything. The trouble with aging is that no-one ever realises it’s happening to them, we always feel the same age inside ourselves, and I suppose that age is about ten or eleven, that’s about when we’ve got hold of the idea of what, or who, we are. You could argue it happens right from the start of your life, but I still say ten or eleven is what most people feel like. As far as I can tell, most old people think that old age is some nasty trick that’s been played on them – they feel it shouldn’t really have happened. Try aging fifty years in five hours! I don’t know if it’s that different from what happens to you normally. It was a tricky moment. “It started when we were back in Wellbeath – the real Wellbeath,” I said. “It’d started even before we got a hangover.. That’s why I’ve been needing to pee so much. I’m a sad old codger with bladder trouble – which reminds me…..” There were waist-high weeds everywhere, so that was one good thing about the future, if you happened to have bladder trouble – and mine happened to have got going again.
There’s nothing quite as shabby-looking as a modern house that hasn’t been looked after properly. Old-fashioned houses, like Woeburn House used to be – stone houses – they can get completely ramshackle and still look quite good – kind of dignified, and a bit elegant even. But take a modern house, that’s built with concrete blocks and pre-fabricated sections and factory-made tiles and stuffed with artificial insulation and plastic membranes, and let it go slowly to rack and ruin – it looks like hell. It looks like a living rubbish dump, with cracked off bits here, and tattered slimy bits of insulation and plastic there, while the nice tinted roof-tiles turn a disgusting yellow-brown colour like dog puke – anyway, that’s what these houses looked like, well most of them.
Some of them seemed to be lived in – lived in after a fashion: we peeped in through one window and saw walls covered in slimy black mould, sagging ceilings, doors that looked like they’d come off their hinges. We even saw some people here doing just what you’d expect in these kind of places – slinking off round the side of the buildings, like they’d seen us and decided to keep out of our way; shadow people.
But there were also a few young people now. They would pass us, in groups of two or three, and we didn’t like the look of them at all, especially when we remembered we were old codgers now and must have looked distinctly vulnerable. There were tattooed necks and elaborate piercings and so on, and they stared at us – really hard kind of meaningful stares that made us we look quickly down at the ground, and show we were getting out of the place as quick as we could go.
Not all the houses were dilapidated. We passed one or two which were quite different. You couldn’t get close to them because they were surrounded with high security fences with what looked like electric wires on the top of them. They had automatic gates with TV cameras mounted on them, and some of them had little lodges where I suppose there were security men sitting. We hurried past these places, in case we got caught by the cameras or something. We got a glimpse through these gates at fairly ordinary-looking houses and well-kept gardens with grass and bushes and stuff.
“If this is Wellbeath in the future,” I said, “should we be looking for the future Woeburn Estate, do you think – and maybe the future Bad Shed too?”
David shrugged. We had no idea what we were doing here, or why we were doing it. Were we looking for something, or were we just ambling about, waiting for something to happen? We trudged along with our eyes on the ground wondering if this could be Wellbeath or if it was just Hell. And then we saw a bunch of feet on the pavement in front of us, feet in big black boots, and they weren’t moving, they were standing still, right in our way. We looked up.
We’d just seen them in twos and threes before. Now there were at least half a dozen of them. That was in front of us. There were more coming up from behind.. I realised my heart was thumping rather fast. Oh go on, Charles, have a heart attack on them, why don’t you, I muttered to myself. I don’t know which is worse, being in that situation when you’re young or when you’re old – though on this occasion of course there was no Jollyunder waiting to put things right when it was all over and you’d crawled home crying. Anyway there was something about the look of these ones that made you think you wouldn’t be doing much crawling home after they’d finished with you.
“Well, well,” this young lad said – he had black hair sticking out all over the place like a hedgehog and the strangest thing sitting in it like a bird in a nest – some sort of moving device, a turning spiral maybe, like a vortex or a whirlwind that you seemed to be looking down into, looking like it was going to suck you in and pull you free-falling down forever. I suppose it was just a decoration, but it wasn’t a nice thing at all, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it, I didn’t even notice what the rest of him looked like, how he was dressed or anything. I don’t think he was that tall, certainly smaller than me, and I’ve no idea what age he was, but I think I was feeling as scared as I’ve ever felt. – “Well well,” he said, and you could hear the sneer in his voice, sharp and dangerous as battery acid, “and what’s a pair of plumpy geezikoes doing so far from home?”
I was praying that David wouldn’t go asking what he meant by plumpy geezikoes or anything stupid. Luckily he’d dried up almost as bad as me. “Ah – we’re lost, I’m afraid,” I managed to stammer.
He turned a very nasty grin on me, and I immediately regretted saying “I’m afraid”. I thought that would give him ideas. “Ah, we’re strangers here,” I gasped, “you couldn’t tell us how we could get to -” Of course I had to stop there, because I had no idea where we wanted to get to.
“Sure,” he said, suddenly all amiable. “I can tell you how to get to.”
Some quiet sniggers came from the rest of the gang. I glanced around them, and I noticed then that there were girls as well as boys. How did I notice this? Bloody hell, how had I not noticed it before? They were all dressed pretty much the same, you see, in black, hangy sort of clothes – quite like what our high-kicker had been wearing – but they all had sort of plastic windows in the material just over the bits that showed whether they were boys or girls, if you see what I mean. That gave me a bit of a shock. “Windows,” I muttered, going into a flat panic. “We were looking for windows – we were going – window-shopping – can you tell us how to get to the shops from here, please?” It was bad, but would anyone else have done any better, in the circumstances?
There was what sounded like an appreciative murmur from the group. More seemed to have joined them by now, there could have been as many as twenty of them. “You going shopping, then?” one of them – a girl’s voice – said.
“Furby plumpies,” someone else said.
“You furby geriatraps, then?” the vortex-boy said. “You got salty?”
“What’s that?” I asked shakily.
“Salty,” the boy said again. “Lotto. Stashies. What you got?”
“He’s asking if we’ve got money,” David said in a low voice.
“Moan-ee” the boy chimed in a sing-song kind of voice. “Yeah. Yessums.” He took a step towards us.
“For God’s sake, let’s just give him what we’ve got,” David muttered.
“I don’t know what we have,” I muttered back. “We don’t have much,” I said aloud. “Not enough for all you guys.”
“Guys.” We heard the word go whispering round the group, as though they were tasting it, seeing if they liked it.
“Come on then pull you trouser-tubes down, let’s have a see,” someone else called.
“It’s in my pockets,” I said a bit crossly. “I don’t need to pull anything down.”
That got a laugh, and I was just beginning to think I was doing well when a knife-blade suddenly appeared in someone’s hand and slashed straight at my trouser-pocket. Got me as well – just a surface-cut, but when you’re old – I found this out the hard way – you bleed easier. I suppose your blood’s thinner. When I looked down all I could see was pouring blood. Of course my money was in my back pocket, but I had visions of the knife-boy – I could see him now, it wasn’t our vortex-friend – slashing all my pockets out one by one and shredding me up in the process.
But just then a shout came from beyond the group, and everyone immediately turned their heads and then fell back, as though I’d started spurting acid or something.We looked in the direction they were all looking, and we saw a girl striding along the street towards us. You could see it was a girl from the way she walked, she was too far away at that point to see her “windows”, but she was dressed in the same kind of clothes as all the others. I think I felt it straight away: something about her that reminded me of David’s high-kicking helper.
As she came closer we could see she had strange black lines drawn on her pale face, they reminded me of the markings on a goat’s or an antelope’s face, and you could see at a glance that she had a kind of authority – and that was obvious enough too from the way the others behaved.
“Hey! They with me, them old pervies,” the girl shouted. I suppose we’d already started hoping this new arrival would be on our side, and our hearts immediately sank again when we heard her talking in the same peculiar way as the others – quite illogically, because why would she talk like us, and why should that have made us feel any better? “You leave’em be!”
The group surrounding us turned to face her. There didn’t seem to be much point in our trying to escape, so we just stayed put and waited.
“How they with you, Big Jenny?” our vortex-boy challenged her. “They in our plasm.”
“Never mind where they are, scumdod Kurt,” Big Jenny replied. “If I say they with me, they with me. You gonna do somehing stop me?”
Our friend Kurt started muttering angrily, but he fell back as Jenny came up to us. Someone else, not Kurt, spat on my trouser leg. But it was obvious Big Jenny was in control of the situation. She planted herself in front of us, her hands on her hips, and had a good stare at us.
10. Big Jenny
I don’t know why Kurt called her Big Jenny. She wasn’t that big. She certainly wasn’t fat. I thought, under the strange markings on her face, she was probably quite nice-looking. It’s a bit difficult knowing where to look when you’re face-to-face with a young woman who’s fully dressed apart from she’s got bare breasts and bare – well, other bits too, so I just tried to stare very hard into her eyes and not notice.
After she’d had a good stare she turned her head sideways to the others. “What you still here?” she snarled. “Slimy off, I said. Din I say slimy off? Well I saying it now, init. They with me.”
“Hey, they just pervie geriatraps,” someone muttered; and then there was some more muttering, and then the whole bunch of them did just slimy off, well I suppose that’s what they did. They disappeared at any rate. I noticed it seemed to be darker, and I started wondering what time of day it was. The sky was grey and overcast so it was hard to tell.
“Thank you,” David and I said together.
Jenny turned back and stared at us again.
“How did you get them to go away?” David enquired shakily, glancing up and down the street.
Suddenly Jenny’s stern face relaxed into a smile – a big grin in fact. “Them?” she said scornfully. “They don see me right, init? I keep it that way, that’s a best. Come on then what you waiting for. I take you where you wanna go.”
“I don’t know where we want to go.”
“Outa town first, she said. She glanced down at my leg. “You bleeding, you don wanna go into town. Bad air there, you blood get sick. I know where you wanna go, you geezikoes, I take you, come on.”
She set off at a great pace, and we hurried along behind her. I was limping a bit because my cut had started to smart. I didn’t think the knife had severed a vein, but I was worried the muscle might have been damaged. But then she stopped again and turned to us.
“Almost forgot,” she said, with another grin. “You got lotto have you?”
“Money, you mean?” David said.
“Mun-nee.” She said it differently from how Kurt had done, but still strangely. “Yeah. You got?”
“Yes, we’ve got some,” David said. “Why? Will we need it where we’re going?”
“Dono bout that,” Jenny said. “I’m say – you got mun-nee for me? Saved you, din I? Two old dead geezikoes on a street if wasn for me. Rats like em fine, but no-one else care, init?”
“I see,” David said coldly. “We thought you just saved us out of kindness.”
“Dono bout that,” she said again. “Thank you’s dead cheap init. Easy said. You got lotto?”
“Let’s just do it, David,” I muttered. “What the hell.”
“Very well,” he said grudgingly, “but I don’t think what we’ve got’ll be much good to you.” he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and handed her some paper money – everything he had, I think, about thirty pounds.
“Oooh,” she smiled softly, taking it and holding it up to look at it curiously. “Stashies! You pervie old devil you. Sure I can use this.” She took a couple of fives and handed the rest back to David. “You need that, though,” she smiled. “Maybe.”
“Right, thanks,” David said stiffly. I could see he couldn’t make Jenny out at all. Nor could I, for that matter. But I suppose, when you thought about it sensibly, she wasn’t being like, greedy or anything. She didn’t want everything. She’d done something for us and she wanted some money for it. “Fair enough,” said David, “I’m sorry.” He was obviously thinking the same way as me. Jenny probably didn’t have anything herself anyway. Presumably these were all some kind of street kids.
“I have to go to the toilet,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’ve got bladder trouble. Is there anywhere near….?” There weren’t weeds everywhere here, I should say, and anyway, I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was now we were in the company of – how should I say? – one of the locals.
Jenny looked at David enquiringly. “What’s with him?” she said.
“Toilet?” David said, slowly and clearly, like he was talking to a foreigner.
She looked blank. “I need to piss,” I said. Might as well call a spade a spade – surely some words never change.
She shrugged. “What’s wrong with a street?” she said.
“Fine,” I said hastily. “Fine. You don’t mind if I turn away, then?”
“Don mind nothing, me,” shaking her head at David as if she thought I was really odd.
So I turned away and got on with it, though it was a bit difficult because my zip was all clogged with dried blood. But it struck me now how much of a nuisance I could be, if I had to keep stopping. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but it was just another of those things that make you feel weak and vulnerable. Behind me, David was starting a conversation with our strange companion.
“These clothes you wear,” I heard him say. “- do you kids all wear clothes like that?”
“Sure, what else?” Jenny replied. “They fine.”
“Yes, but isn’t it a bit embarrassing – those – windows? Showing off everything you’ve got. I’m sorry, I’m not meaning to be rude….”
“What, my sexy-shows?” Jenny laughed. “They not real, old geezikoe, they pictures. That’s not me! Life-like, just, at’s a teknocrap. Boys they fool about witha circuits, mak him stan tenshion, init, crap like that, not me though, I just ignore.”
“Oh, I see – I’m sorry,” David said again. I felt like laughing now, he was so embarrassed. “Just – just a fashion, I suppose. Like any other.”
“Na,” Jenny said. “Law, that.”
“Law, how?” David said.
“We gotta show what we are. Gender, yeah? So’s they can kill us girls first, if any trouble.”
“They kill girls first? Who, the police?” I said.
“Na not police,” she said. “But sort of. Prefects, they called – kinda controllers.”
“Why do they kill girls first?” I asked. I was struggling with my zip again, trying to get it up this time. But I’d stopped – just in horror, I suppose – to listen.
“Ah,” she said – almost looking proud, I thought – “We a breeder-men, we girls. We make a babies, but they don want’em, init? So they kill a girls first of all. Dear Mrs You-know-who, so sorry your darling daughter she got shot through the head, but we done it cos she was making trouble see, so that’s good she dead init, that make street safe for alla good people. So theys always more boys’n a girls. So what happen? A boys fight over a girls, and a boys kill each other, like knife in a guts, yeah? and at’s good too, save a prefects a bovva, save bullet an all, see? Good economy, init?”
“This is a terrible place,” David said.
I went back to my struggles with the zip. Finally we got going again.
“There must be too many people, are there? David said after a bit. “That’s why they’re so happy to kill you off. Overpopulation, they always said that would happen. Now life’s become cheap.”
“Yeah,” Jenny agreed. “Too many sliming scumdods. Need a big flood now, wash em all out.”
She led us a long way, neither of us really knew where. It was definitely starting to get dark, and we began to get anxious about somewhere to stay the night. She refused to say anything about where she was taking us, apart from it was where geriatraps liked to go and that we had to avoid the town centre, in case my cut got infected by the bad air.
We were completely in her hands, but it was hard to trust her completely, because every now and then, if we came to a big road or what looked like a change of area, she would turn to us and demand more money. We never gave her more than a couple of fives at a time, and she seemed quite happy with that, but we didn’t have that much, especially after our drinking-spree back at home, and what we did have was disappearing fast.
“What’s it for?” David complained at one stage. “I don’t see why you keep needing more.”
“Danger-crap init,” she answered, lightly. “Salty. Not my plasms, this ones.”
We shrugged and paid up. We were in her power.
It was definitely dusk by the time we came to a high steel security wall, like some of the ones we’d see round the houses before. I’d had to stop twice more to have a pee, so we must have been walking for about an hour and a half (forty-five-minute bladder cycle, I’d got that worked out. Don’t make any long trips to anywhere respectable unless there’s a toilet – you start to realise how old people must have to map out their day with care). Our feet were very sore, our poor old backs ached, and my hurt leg was throbbing like a bus-engine. “What year is this anyway?” I asked suddenly. I don’t know why neither of us had asked before.
Jenny grinned. “Bed-time, that’s when. Bed-time for geezikoes.”
“No, seriously,” I said. “We seem to have come into a different time, and we ought to know how far into our future it is before the world turns – like this.”
Jenny simply scoffed. “Come on, old plumpy scumdod,” she said. “Just you keep follow me. Whatsit matter. Things bad enough without carchyin about. Get you crap-cakes down.”
We understood what she meant by this final instruction when she suddenly dropped to her hands and knees and started crawling under some bushes growing close to the steel wall. There was no-one about to see us and we followed her one by one. It was pitch dark under the bushes and I just had to follow Jenny by feel – well, by smell too, she didn’t smell exactly fresh, I suppose that wasn’t surprising. I realised pretty quickly there was some kind of small tunnel under the wall, perhaps worn by an animal, perhaps by Jenny on some other occasion. It seemed to take ages and I thought I was suffocating at one stage, but we finally got through and stood up, trying to dust the mud and cobwebs off our clothes and looking around in the dusk at the strange new place we had come to.
I say strange – I suppose I’d simply got used to the shabby, scrappy dejected look everything had in this horrible world. The place we’d come to simply looked normal, I mean like somewhere in our world or our time or whatever. There were decent-looking trees, and flower-beds, and mown grass, and various long, low, well-kept-looking buildings of different sizes here and there, some of them with lights in the windows, shining softly through drawn curtains.
“Woa,” David said. Just that one sound, woa. I suppose it summed up what we were both feeling.
Jenny was looking at us with a faint smile. Her strangely-patterned face looked all the more eerie in such normal surroundings. “You like it, yeah?” she said. “Thought you would. Good place for geezikoes.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But could we not have just come in by the main gate?” I had just noticed what looked like a gate into this walled place, with a road leading up to one of the larger buildings.
“Who gonna let you in there?” Jenny laughed.
“Look, there’s somebody,” David said.
There was a person moving along the road under the trees. Someone in a white coat. Apart from the street-kids and the shadowy figures we’d seen keeping out of our way in the derelict houses, it was the first person we’d seen on foot since we’d arrived here. It looked like a female, walking smartly along, you could see her clearly in the dusk because of her white coat, but she didn’t show any signs that she’d seen us. She made me think of a nurse, or something like that. Somehow, that gave me a bad feeling. “What kind of place is this?” I said. “Why have you brought us here?”
“You wanna be here don you?” she answered. “It’s a good place for pervies. Geezikoes wanna sleep safe at night don they? No sitting up staring hand onna knife init?”
“Well yes, of course we want to sleep safe,” I said.
“At least until we find what we’re supposed to be doing here,” David added.
“So,” she said, “how about a rest of a stashies now I got you here so safe and sound.”
“What?” David said. “I thought we’d given you everything you asked for.”
“Ah,” she said. “Expenses, that. Danger-crap n’at. I need my fee too, don I?”
“How much do you want for a fee?” we asked.
“How much you got?” she said.
We knew exactly how much we had, with all her various demands for more. She‘d taken the biggest part of what we’d had. We’d eighteen pounds left between us. “Ten pounds,” we said in unison.
She grimaced at us. “Ah come on,” she said. “You got more n’at, I know. You got plumpies.”
We could have stood out, I suppose. We didn’t need to tell her how much we had, after all, she’d brought us where she said she was going to, so it wasn’t as if she had anything else to bargain with. I don’t know. I can’t even remember which one of us said it, but a moment later we’d told her we had eighteen pounds left.
“But we need to keep a little back,” David said. “You surely understand that, don’t you?”
She obviously didn’t.
David explained, “Well, we might need it, mightn’t we? We don’t know how long we might have to live here to find – whatever it is we have to find. We might need to buy food. Come on, Jenny, we must have given you forty quid. Not that we’re not grateful -”
“What you need stashies for here?” she butted in. “You don need to buy nohin here. You safe here, init? This a proper geesikoe place. Let’s see you stashies.”
Five seconds later, she was holding our money in her hand. I mean, all the rest, all eighteen pounds of it. We’d just handed it over.
“Right Jenny,” David said, “you take ten, leave us the eight. That’s not a lot to ask is it?” I mean, we didn’t even know if our money was even worth anything in this place, but it seemed like a really hard thing, to have to give it all up. It kind of made us feel we’d have nothing left to protect ourselves with. “Come on Jenny, please,” David said. “You’re a good girl.”
“Hm.” She seemed to consider. Then, “Not good counting-man, me,” she said. Suddenly she took a few steps back, springing-like, almost dancing. “Na,” she said. “This one fine. You a good boy, Davie. You both good boys.”
“No, Jenny, come back!” we called. We realised she was about to make off.
“Peachy luck, yeah?” she said. “You sleep tight now, you old geezikoes.” She turned and started to run off.
“You just come back here, my girl!” David yelled. What a daft thing to say. I’d have probably said the same, if I’d found my voice in time. You just come back here, my girl! Whose phrase-book did that come out of? And what kind of a threat was it anyway? “I’ll report you to the police!” David roared – he was really fired up by now, poor old bugger, and acting just like he’d been a poor old bugger all his life.. “Or – the prefects, that’s what I’ll do, report you to the prefects for stealing. And you know what they‘ll do to you, don’t you? Yes, that’s right.”
Jenny had stopped. She seemed to consider a moment, then she turned round. Could she have changed her mind?
No, she couldn’t. “Oh yeah?” she called. “who you gonna report then? Girl-bitch called Jenny. Oh yeah, sweet old geezikoes, we know eggsacly who you mean, off we go shoot her through the head for you now sir. Don even know my name, do you, scumdod old pervies. You slimied, you, eh?”
“Come on, David,” I muttered. “We’re slimied, she’s right. Leave it.”
David huffed and puffed a bit as we watched Jenny loping off towards the thicket by the security wall. After all, what was he but a typical ranting old buffer who’d been done over by a young girl. Helpless, that’s what we were. She reached the place we had crawled through. Just before she bent to go through she turned once again and waved to us. “Good-bye, old geezikoes!” she called. “A name’s Jenny Salford, by a way. Peachy luck with a prefects!” Then she was gone.
We just stared at each other. “What did she say?” I said. I thought it was just my bad hearing. “It sounded like she said her name was Jenny Salford.”
“Funny that,” David said dully. “I was just thinking she’d said her name was Jenny Salford.”
“Bloody hell,” I growled. “How could we have missed it? We should have known the moment she started getting money out of us that easily. There’s no-one’s ever had that effect on me since that day -” I meant that day we never talked about, when old Miss Salford had made us stand on the terrace of Woeburn House and look out over the meadow of gillyflowers, while a sort of coldness, like a cramp, went down the backs of our legs and held us there, rooted to the ground…..
11. In the Grounds
The darkness by now was falling fast. It suddenly hit us how tired we were, how hungry and how lost. Of course we knew nothing really about this strange world we were in, except that they didn’t respect the lives of young people, but Jenny had brought us here apparently to help us, and now we were pretty sure that Jenny was also, in some way we couldn’t understand, connected with our gillyflower-lady from long ago, and it struck us then – pretty strongly I can tell you – that if there’d ever been anyone you could trust, out in this big bitter place that we call the world, it would be old Miss Salford. I don’t know why we should think that exactly, it just seemed to come to us. I was more sure than ever now that it was Big Jenny that had saved David from the electrified car.
Anyway, what we thought now was that if our old Miss Salford – or I suppose it could have been a younger relative, or no relation at all, but we felt that Jenny was somehow the same as our old Miss Salford – if she’d brought us to this place, and then taken all our money off us too, it was because this was the best way of getting us looked after properly.
“Come on,” David said, “let’s just walk straight in the front door.”
“Which front door?” I said. “There’s lots of front doors.” Because there were – there were buildings all over the place.
“The biggest one,” he said, pointing over to the building we’d noticed before, that the white-coated figure had come out of.
So, we went over towards it. And we were glad we chose that one, because going over to it helped us get some idea what sort of place this was. The path over to it, you see, led us alongside one of the smaller buildings. We saw now the walls of these buildings were made of some strange kind of material – smooth and very hard-feeling, I suppose it could have been painted metal but it didn’t quite feel like that and the windows were, like, moulded into the texture of the wall so that you could hardly even see where the wall stopped and the window began, as if the edge between the two was a bit blurry. It certainly didn’t look as though the window could open. The windows weren’t quite flat, nor rectangular either – every surface and shape seemed a little bit curved – everything very smooth, you couldn’t imagine plants, ivy or creepers or anything, growing up these walls.
Anyway we didn’t spend too much time admiring the buildings, we were more interested in having a bit of a peer through these windows.
Which is what we did, and it stopped us right there in our tracks, I can tell you.
It was an old people’s home. We should have known that of course, as soon as we saw the white-coated figure. There were fifteen or twenty of them in this room, banged up in chairs one next to the other, just staring. What they were staring at was kids doing gymnastics – I mean I suppose it was some kind of 3-D TV, but it looked very realistic, except the gymnasts looked a bit smaller than they should have, but really it was like some of the wall had melted away and your were looking into a real gymn-hall. It was the weirdest combination of activites, the old guys sitting staring and the young ones whirling and leaping and running and all.
“Pervie geriatraps,” David murmured. “Look at them – just sponging up all the energy – all the youth that doesn’t belong to them.”
“A bit harsh, Davie,” I murmured back. “I suppose it keeps them entertained: life can’t exactly be full of excitement here.” But inside I had a sick kind of feeling. Like, why couldn’t they have let them die thirty years ago. There was something terrible about it, just terrible.
“They’ll be hanging about to see if a cure for Dying comes along,” David said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” All our good thoughts about Miss Salford being someone we could trust slipped away in a moment. If Jenny thought this would be a good place for us to be, either she was being mischievous or else she was just plain mistaken.
We walked. I’m not sure how far or even particularly in what direction. At any rate by the time we’d finished walking we’d no idea where the tunnel under the security wall had gone to. We could have followed one of the roads, I suppose, and got to the main gate, but for some reason we weren’t too keen on doing that. We’d seen too many of these security gates this day, and didn’t much like the idea of all those uniformed guards and CCTV cameras. We had a distinct feeling they wouldn’t much appreciate the sort of people who got in by crawling under their wall.
It still wasn’t completely dark, and anyway there were lights coming out all over the place in the grounds – too many lights really, it wouldn’t be long before they started showing us up if we couldn’t find somewhere to hide. As I said, we were feeling really tired and really hungry by this time, but probably the tiredness was the worst. We were knackered. We really just needed to get our heads down – anywhere, as long as it wasn’t in that Home and as long as it wasn’t out on the street.
“What about that?” David said, pointing.
It seemed to be something like a gardener’s shed. It was hidden a bit behind a hedge, and overhung by tall trees, and there were what looked like some compost bins behind it, and something that looked a bit like a wheelbarrow, except it didn’t have a wheel, it looked as though it probably hovered when it was being used. Anyway this shed seemed a bit different from the other buildings when we got up to it. It seemed to be made just of ordinary plastic, there were some handles on either side of it which gave you the feeling it could probably be carried about – but the main thing about it was it had an ordinary door – nothing futuristic or electronic – with an ordinary padlock on it. Of course, the padlock was locked and we’d left our big cutters behind when we went into the electricity hut, but the wall was only plastic, and in a moment David had got hold of a fancy garden-fork kind of thing that was lying in the barrow and prised the catch off. We opened the door, David went in – and jumped back with a yell! The place was full of people!
It wasn’t actually. They were statues – plastic statues as we found out, full-sized and painted just like real people. But it was certainly the last thing we expected, and the last thing you’d imagine, somehow.
“That’s a crib,” David said, when we’d stared for a while. “It’s a bloody nativity scene! There’s Mary and Joseph and – God, there’s even a bloody ox and a donkey!”
“That explains the handles,” I said after another while. “They must carry it out and put it at the front when it’s Christmas-time.”
“Funny thing,” David said. “I never thought of it ever being Christmas here, somehow.”
“Not if they hate babies so much,” I agreed.
Well, there was just room for us to lie down on the plastic floor in front of the crib. We tried head to head, but that didn’t seem comfortable enough somehow; then we tried feet to feet, but we felt too far away from each other, somehow, when we did that. So in the end we kind of squeezed ourselves like sardines, foot to head. It sounds stupid, but there was something nice about lying down in front of the Christ-child and all, it made us feel a bit like the ox and the ass lying there sleeping beside us. Anyway it got pretty chilly, and there was quite a draught round the thin plastic door, though we pulled it as far to as we could, and we were glad of the warmth of each other’s bodies. It wasn’t long before we got past the stage of feeling too hungry to sleep and started feeling fairly fuzzy.
We woke frozen, stiff, and sick with hunger.
“My God, there’s a whole forest in here!” David exclaimed.
He was right. Well, “in here” wasn’t quite right, because we were outside, not in any hut at all: behind the nativity scene, which looked really bright-coloured and tacky in the daylight, there were trees – a winter forest, stretching away into the distance – on all sides in fact.
My first thought was: Narnia! We’ve walked into the Wardrobe! It was getting quite hard to hold onto reality. My next thought was it didn’t seem nearly cold enough for winter.
David had just realised the same thing. “It’s not snow,” he said. “It’s whiteness again.” Then he said something which I thought was “There’s Jollyunder.”
“Where?” I exclaimed, wheeling round and looking everywhere about. It just shows what kind of state I was in, I was willing to believe anything was possible.
“There, where I said it was,” David frowned, pointing at the crib.
“I thought you said, there’s Jollyunder.”
“Oh, go and get your ears syringed,” he growled. “I said, there’s holly under the crib.”
Then I saw what he meant: that is, there was holly under the crib. I could see what he meant now, it wasn’t plastic holly or anything, it was real and it seemed to be growing there, kind of squashed under the baby’s cradle – and it wasn’t white, it was proper dark-green holly colour. What David was actually pointing to was the fact that the forest wasn’t completely white and sketchy: you could see now, when you looked at it closely, there were all these sketchy trees everywhere, but dotted in amongst them there were patches of dark colour – dark green in fact: holly-trees. Wherever there was a holly tree it didn’t look like it had just been pencilled on white paper, it looked real. You couldn’t see any berries, but you could see the glossy dark green of the leaves. That reminded me of Narnia all the more, because all the other trees, the pencilly ones, were like the illustrations in my old Narnia books, just line drawings, black on white. .
So I noticed all this, but at the same time I kept staring back at the crib
as well. “Maybe I wasn’t too far wrong though,” I said. “Doesn’t that Christ-child just remind you of Jollyunder?”
David glanced down. “Na,” he said. Then, “God, I’m starving. Do you think there’s anywhere round here you can get some breakfast?”
“Can but try,” I said, and off we went.
It was a very strange feeling, walking through that forest. It was a very strange forest. It felt like a forest, though I don’t think it smelled like one. I can’t really remember that. You knew you were walking among trees, even though they were just like sketches. But we could also feel them, and it was when I put my hand on the trunk of one big one as we passed by it that David noticed something really peculiar. “Look,” he said, “you grubby slob, you’ve left a mark on it.”
It was a perfect hand-print, as though I’d put my hand in soot and then slapped it on the tree. Except it wasn’t. When you looked closer, you could see it wasn’t a black mark I’d left, it wasn’t even a grubby mark: it was tree. I mean, inside that hand-shaped space you could see real tree-trunk, the silvery-grey colour, the rough pattern of bark, the small grey-yellow traces of lichen between the ridges, even a couple of little beasties crawling up and down it. Real tree. Then we saw we’d left footprints in the white ground too: forest footprints, dead leaves, mud, a couple of small green plants. That was what gave us the idea for our experiment.
“What kind of trees are these anyway?” David asked. We looked about. It can be pretty difficult deciding what kind of trees you’re looking at when they’re all white and sketchy, especially if you’re not very good at trees like we weren’t.
“I think that might be an oak,” I said, pointing to this big tree towering over us.
And – wow. For one minute I got a taste of what it must be like to be a magician, if there’s any such thing. A real magician, I mean, a wizard. As I pointed to that tree, it was like colour, and texture and shape – life in fact – came flooding into it. Like the way redness comes back into your cheeks after you’ve turned very pale. It started from the exact place I’d been pointing to, about half way up, and it spread, upwards and downwards, very fast, but not so fast that you couldn’t see it happening – realness spreading into it, real life, grey and brown and black, and green leaves, dark and glossy as the holly in some parts, bright and glowing with sunlight in others. I can’t really explain adequately the feeling of power, and delight, and just sheer wonder, that I’d done this, just by pointing. I’d made a tree! “I’ve made a tree,” I whispered, just like that. “I’ve made a tree.”
“So you have,” David laughed. “Let’s do some more.”
And we did. We went about doing it all morning. I can’t say any of the other times were ever quite as wonderful as that first time, but it was great fun for all that, and we couldn’t get enough of it. It was much better than breakfast, and we forgot all about being so hungry. We pointed and we named, over and over again. “Oak! Beech! Elm! Alder! Hornbeam! Pine! Ash! Hawthorn! Maple! Elder!” I said we weren’t much good at trees, but it didn’t seem to matter. I think we made trees appear even when we couldn’t think of their right names. If we ran out of names we made up names, and still trees went on appearing. “What about this?” David yelled. “Peach!” And there was a little peach tree, all hanging with ripe golden peaches; and David turned to me with a little bow. “Breakfast, good sir?”
I never got one of those peaches. Just at that moment there was a shout – “There! Come on!” or something like that – and we whipped round just in time to see two chaps in dark uniforms coming running towards us. I think we thought police – or even prefects – and I think we thought at the same moment, perhaps it isn’t just young people they shoot on sight if they’re caught misbehaving. We didn’t hang about to think. We scarpered. Not much chance, you might think, a couple of stiff old guys trying to outrun a posse of uniforms, probabaly as fit and hard and mean as they come, but we did pretty well for all that. That’s because we kept on pointing and yelling out tree-names, so wherever we ran we were putting up a screen of greenery and branches that must have made it hard for them to see us. After a few over-exciting minutes of this the sounds of pursuit seemed to die away and we slowed to a halt. We were puffed out, and very shaky by now. Just our luck we hadn’t at least got a couple of peaches in our bellies before we had to run for it.
“Pretty good going, sir,” David panted, grinning at me as he stood, bent over resting his hands on his knees.
“We licked them,” I grinned back. “Were those the dreaded prefects, do you think?”
“Nothing to them, when it came to it, was there?” David said.
And then we looked up and saw that we were surrounded.
12. Into the Maze
They could have been uniformed police, I suppose. I mean they had dark uniforms and mean-looking hats, and they had big truncheons strapped to their belts – could even have been guns for all I know. But I think we guessed pretty quickly that they weren’t police. They were too fat, most of them, they didn’t look all that fit – in fact they looked like the kind of guys who would do anything for a quiet life. It all pointed to one thing: security guards. They were here to look after the place. The truncheons and guns were probably because they were used to being pestered by people like Jenny, creeping in under the fence and making a nuisance of themselves.
“Go dumb,” I muttered to David. “Act confused. Leave the rest to me.”
“Oh!” I yelled suddenly – I even made David jump – “I need the toilet! Where’s the toilet?” I did actually need the toilet, so I suppose that gave me extra conviction. It certainly did the trick.
“Come on then, grandad,” one of the security guards chuckled. “Let’s get you back indoors then, and you can find your toilet. Now, do you remember which is your house?”
“No! No!” David and I both moaned together. “I can’t remember – I can’t remember where it is. Where are we?”
“Come on then,” the security guard said kindly, and we both got an escort, one of them on each side of us, plus a lot of extra help with supporting us by the elbow and “mind you don’t trip now”, and so on – a lot of help that we could have done without.
Three of the security men went away, and that left four of them escorting us – too many to get away from, so we thought we’d better just carry on and see what happened next. They were all friendly and helpful. “You’re at Hollywood, remember?” they said, several times. We took it that Hollywood was the name of the old people’s home, and I couldn’t think of any references to the film industry that wouldn’t have made us appear too smart, so looking confused was about the best thing we could have done anyway. That was probably what they were most used to.
Actually we were a bit confused. We had thought, waking up in what we thought was a shed and finding it was a forest, that we’d gone through some kind of door into another dimension – same as we’d done when we went into the electricity hut, back – whenever it was, a lifetime ago. After all, hadn’t I exclaimed “Narnia!” when I saw forest all about us, and of course you reached Narnia through a magic door. But pretty soon it seemed that the wood we’d been in was just a part of the grounds of the Hollywood Home – so what the hell was all that with the sketchy trees and turning them real by pointing at them? Maybe we were just gaga after all – maybe we needed to be in a home – maybe we’d been in a home all along – perhaps we’d been taken there after someone had found us smashed out of our brains on Wellbeath High Street. Maybe we’d been banged up somewhere for even longer than that – years maybe – maybe we’d imagined the whole thing about going on our quest for Jollyunder. In fact, maybe we’d imagined our whole lives – Miss Salford and the gillyflowers and the Bad Shed and Jollyunder and everything. Maybe we’d always been old and confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home. You don’t really know, do you, once you start enquiring about what’s going on in your head.
Anyway we let our escort lead us, and eventually we came out of the wood – I can’t actually remember if it was a sketch-wood any more, so maybe we were pretty far gone – and back into sight of the low buildings with the super-smooth walls.
Of course, it might have been hunger that was making us imagine things. We were starving. “I’m so hungry, I’m so hungry,” David kept whimpering – I suppose he was doing his bit for our poor confused old chaps image, but he probably meant it too. He went on whimpering that, and I went on whimpering, “I need the toilet”, sometimes varying it with “oh, I’m so tired” and “but where are we?”
As we were obviously such hopeless cases, they took us to the large central building, which turned out to be where they had all their administration and offices and everything. And there our chaps said goodbye to us nicely and left us in the care of a bunch of nice young nurses.
This lot was practical, as well as good-looking; they got me sorted out with a toilet – not too dignified for me, but there you go. Then they got going trying to work out who we were and where we belonged. They were hunting through lists and computers and I don’t know what for ages – computers like I’d never seen: sensitive! They beeped and winked back at you if you so much as stuck your tongue out!
But all to no avail. “Can’t you remember anything about where you came from?” they pleaded. “Oh, you’ve even lost your tracer-bracelets!” And we were moved from one office to another office and on to another one after that, where they asked questions and questions and filled in forms – well, not the kind of forms we were used to: they babbled and waved their hands at computer screens, and the computers babbled and blinked back at them.
Everything about this building was clean and smooth and fresh-smelling and quiet and peaceful, and it began to occur to me that the place must cost an awful lot of money to run – which was a bit weird, considering how run-down and derelict the rest of the town seemed to be. There was a reason for that, as you can imagine, and we pretty soon guessed what it was.
“You couldn’t have got here from Deadlock General, could you?” One of the nurses enquired eventually, in a worried sort of voice.
Deadlock General! Who in God’s name would think of calling a hospital Deadlock General, I think we asked ourselves something similar before. There didn’t seem any doubt in my mind that that mouldering concrete prison we’d seen back near the town centre was the same as this Deadlock General. Down in the town centre, that is, where the air was so bad you couldn’t even get a cut without the immediate risk of a blood infection. If they drugged the old fogies here at Hollywood to keep them quiet, what would they do to them in a place called Deadlock General? Keep them chained to their beds, probably – and that would be on a good day. It all became obvious now. It was only Hollywood if you’re old and rich: if you’re old and ordinary, it was Deadlock. They were probably kept stacked ten-deep in drawers and just taken out occasionally and sprayed with disinfectant. Deadlock, I don’t know.
Maybe the word deadlock had come to mean something different in the future – maybe it meant something like “peace and quiet”, who could tell? But David immediately started babbling, “Oh no! Oh no! Not there, not that terrible place, oh no, save us!” and stuff like that. I’m not sure that this was necessarily a very good idea. It just made it sound as though we knew all about this Deadlock General, or had escaped from it or something.
“Well,” the nurse at the desk said primly, and looked as up and down with what seemed very different expression on her face, as though she’d suddenly understood a lot of things about us that she hadn’t understood before, “let’s just give them a call, shall we?”
“Oh no!” David screamed, and turned and started stumbling off down the nearest corridor clutching his hair (what there was of it: in the bright light of Hollywood his hair looked painfully sparse). I ran after him.
“What are you doing?” I whispered when I caught up with him. “This isn’t exactly going to make a very good impression, is it?”
We had slowed to a fast walk by now. No one seemed to be following us – I suppose there was nowhere very far we could go anyway – but we continued, because it was the first chance we had to speak to each other alone since the security guards had caught us.
“Well,” David said crossly, “if it comes to impressions, what sort of impression are you making carrying that?”
I followed his glance, and realised I was holding the Christ child from the crib in my hand. Well, dangling him by the foot, actually. How on earth had I got hold of it? I’d been to the toilet about four times since we’d arrived, and how could I have done that without noticing I was carting a dirty great doll around with me? “I don’t know,” I said,. “How long have I been carrying it?”
“The whole time, as far as I’m aware,” David said. “You were going on about how it looked like Jollyunder and you hauled it out of the crib.”
“Why did no-one mention it?”
“I suppose they’re used to ancient crackpots here. Anyway, what does it matter? What are we going to do now?”
I said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking about this Deadlock place?”
“It’s all too obvious,” he answered. “It’s a money-thing isn’t it. If you don’t have the stashies you get Deadlock General – drip feed in one end, catheter in the other end, and that’ll be you for the next twenty years, wishing to hell you could pop it but so drugged up you can’t even wiggle your toe to help yourself. Count on it.”
“So,” I said, “basically we have to escape, or it’s all up with us.”
That was when our little conversation came to an end. The corridor we were in had taken us round in a big circle and dumped us back at the desk where we’d been with the latest nurse.
“Now, gentlemen,” this nurse said, kindly but firmly. “I hope you haven’t been naughty boys. I hope you haven’t found your way here in here by False Pretences.”
We shook our heads dumbly.
“Well, I think the best thing to do is, if you wait here for the ambulance to Deadlock General, and they’ll have a look at you and see if that’s where you’ve come from – though I can’t think how you managed it. And if they don’t know who you are, then I’m sure they’ll be able to find places for you there until we find out properly.”
“Oh, can’t we stay here till you find out?” David whimpered.
“I’m afraid not,” she said, pursing her lips. “You don’t seem to have an account here, and you can’t stay here if you don’t have an account. But,” she added brightly, “Deadlock General’s a perfectly nice place, you’ll be well looked after there.”
“And you’re a perfectly nice liar,” David growled.
“Now, now, we won’t start that,” the nurse said. “The ambulance will be here in fifteen minutes. Just sit over there, please, there’s good boys.”
As if from nowhere, a security guard appeared. He stood by a small row of chairs, one hand on his truncheon, the other held out as if offering us a seat. An offer we couldn’t refuse, obviously. We sat down.
They were very comfortable seats, but not the kind you could exactly leap out off quickly. We felt well and truly caught. Certainly there was only the one security man and the one nurse. We might have been able to overpower John the security man (he had his name on a little badge on his chest), but the nurse was possibly another matter, we were old enough – I mean, in reality old enough – to know that you don’t mess with nurses – and besides, she was bound to have some emergency button or other on her desk which would close the whole place down before could even cross the floor. We were caught. It was the end. It was obvious Deadlock General was the kind of place no-one ever got out of. And this was confirmed pretty soon when we glanced out of the window and saw the so-called ambulance coming in through the gates and heading over towards our building: it was a prison-van, a dark, battered, mean-looking thing and about as out of place in the bright beautiful grounds of Hollywood as a cockroach in a bunch of flowers. I think I felt despair then like I’d never done before – black, suffocating despair. After all we’d been through, all the terror and the strangeness, now this – and not even a glimpse of the reason why we were here, and what we were looking for, and how it could all possibly help Jollyunder.
Jollyunder. I think we both whispered the name in our hearts then, perhaps like a final goodbye. I looked at my stupid Christ-child, which I was still dangling by the leg. I picked him up and sat him on my knee. It seemed kinder somehow, and perhaps I wanted to make some final gesture of kindness, just for Jollyunder’s sake.
“I have to go to the toilet,” I said suddenly.
“Can’t you wait till you get to the other end?” the nurse said. “It isn’t a long ride.”
“That’s a bit harsh, Nita,” John murmured. “He’s probably got a Condition.”
“Yes he has,” David piped up. “And so have I.”
“Well I suppose so,” nurse Nita said, a bit crossly. “But John will have to go in with you.”
That was a nuisance, but we gave each other a glance as much as to say, we’ll deal with John. I weighed up my Christ-child. His head was made of pretty tough, heavy plastic. It might be enough to put poor John out of action, and then, hopefully, we could break the window and make our getaway. It was all a bit of a long shot, but we were just going to have to trust to luck. “This way, gentlemen,” John said, and showed us to a door. It didn’t have the usual toilet icon on it, I thought: maybe it was a staff toilet or something. Anyway, we threw it open, in we went, me first, David just behind me –
– And we were seized, the moment we went through, and dragged off to the side as if by some tremendous force. I heard the slamming of a door, banging – and then more banging, but muffled, and shouting too, but strangely dim and distant. It all happened too quickly to follow, but when I began to take stock again I found myself lying on the floor, David beside me, while a strange figure towered over us glaring down from under bristling eyebrows.
“And where have you been?” the figure demanded, not exactly shouting, but as good as. He – it was a he – had a harsh, grating kind of voice, not at all pleasant but – weird, how these things come to you in a flash – good. Yes, good. Whatever was going to happen, we knew we had been saved. “What on earth took you so long?” the figure went on. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting here? Do you? Oh get up, and stop grovelling there, we have work to do.” We did as we were told, still aware of the sound, like distant drums, of John and Nita hammering on the door and shouting. We sat up, and stopped at sitting-up level, because we were already on a level with our rescuer, or whoever he was.
He was tiny. He was like a midget. It was amazing to think he’d had the strength to pull us over the way he had. He was also a Red Indian.
I know that sounds a bit crazy, and I’m sure there was some deep psychological reason for why we saw him the way we did. Maybe if we’d been different people we’d have seen him as Peter Pan or a Lion or something. Probably it would all depend what you played at when you’re young. We saw a Red Indian midget, all dressed in buckskin, moccasins on his feet, a twisted red and blue headband holding back his long black hair, a scar on either cheek; and he looked pretty fearsome.
“Now,” he snapped, “are you going to get up, or are you going to just sit there on your backsides?”
We heaved ourselves to our feet, and towered over him; but he seemed quite unconcerned about our bigness. “So?” he said. “Are you coming, or not?”
I should say this Red Indian didn’t talk at all like a proper Red Indian should. He was a busy, officious little fellow, and he had a Scottish accent. “Now,” he said, “it’s this way – over here please, I need to take down some particulars.”
“Oh, not another form to fill in!” David wailed. “Not another desk!”
“Organisation, young man,” Red Indian said severely, leading us off past a row of toilet cubicles and out through another door into a very clean, rough-walled, whitewashed corridor. “You don’t get anything done without prior organisation.” In fact he sounded very like a science teacher we used to have at school, a very dry sharp buddy who’d go on about “rrrigour, boys and girruls, science is all about rrrrigour.” Rigor Mortis was the nickname he’d had for about the past hundred years.
“Sorry,” I said. “We’ve just had a lot of forms to fill in the last couple of hours.”
“Ach,” he replied, “they’re not about anything. They’re just nonsense-forms, to give themselves something to while away the boredom of their existence. They just do it to copy us anyway.”
“Who’s us, exactly?” David asked.
“Why, us on the inside of the wall, my loon,” Red Rigor said. “They just creep about on the surface of things and copy. A bit here, a bit there, never anything very satisfactory, never anything worthwhile – never anything rigorous. They’re only half-alive, you see, it’s not really their fault. Now.”
We had reached a desk in the middle of what seemed most like a circular, whitewashed cave. A desk! We had been at desks all morning, but we had never seen anything like this. I don’t know if it was carved, or if it was alive. Its legs were like tree-trunks growing out of the rock of the floor, its raised sides (they were like a low wall enclosing the writing surface on three sides, leaving an open side), they were, well, carved in fantastic shapes of – I don’t know, leaves and fruit and foliage perhaps, though they also looked like monsters and heads and wings and things. Amazing. Red Rigor went round to the open side and climbed up onto a high stool and he opened a drawer and then drew out this enormous gold- and red-bound ledger, which he thumped down onto the desktop. “Now,” he said, leafing through the pages – each one big enough to have covered him completely if he’d lain down in the book – “where are we, where are we? Back to……page five?? Good grief, I never realised it was so far back. You have been an age!” he said, glaring up at us. “A downright age! Very well now. Right. Well, there’s no need to ask you what you’re here about, you’re here on behalf of Ambassador Helle-Yunta.”
He said this name in a very strange way, but there couldn’t be any doubt who he meant. “Jollyunder?” I repeated.
“Are you deaf, or what?” he snapped.. “I said Helle-Yunta.”
“I’m sorry, yes, yes, I am at little bit deaf,” I said humbly.
“Right,” he said, “and you are… And…” His voice sank to a murmur and he started scribbling stuff down on the page of his vast book. He didn’t really ask us any questions at all, or if they were questions he already knew the answers.
“How do you know so much about us?” David asked.
“Oh,” he said vaguely. “The network…, you know…,” and went on writing.
It was very quiet in the little white cave. I thought, isn’t that odd: it had seemed very quiet in the Hollywood Home, but the quietness there was nothing to the silence here, even though Hollywood had muffling carpets and everything, not bare stone and bare walls like here. I suppose there must have been a constant low hum of electrical equipment and so on. Here there was nothing, just silence. It was actually very soothing. We became quite peaceful.
At last he finished scribbling. “Now,” he said, “will you just sign here please?”
We had to go round to his side of the desk to see the page. You could see the bit at the bottom where you were supposed to sign, but the rest of the page was completely blank. Whatever he’d been doing for the last half-hour he didn’t seem to have been writing down any of our particulars.
“I can’t sign that,” said David. “There’s nothing to sign.”
“Of course there’s nothing to sign,” Red Rigor squawked. “You haven’t signed yet!”
“But –” What else could you say but but? We hummed and hawed for a while, because believe me, if there was anything we’d picked up from our dad, it was that you don’t go signing things that you haven’t read first. It’s like the first rule of prudence, isn’t it, don’t get too trusting. However, we were in a bit of a deadlock. Red Rigor wouldn’t do anything to try and make us sign – he didn’t argue, or comment, or get impatient, or even look at us. He just sat there like a statue, gazing sternly ahead, unmoving as a rock at the edge of the sea, like one of those old Indian chiefs you used to get in the Westerns. Anyway, in the end we thought we’d better just trust him, there didn’t seem anything else we could do.
What happened then on the page was quite amazing. It filled up, first of all with sketchy-looking writing, then with colour, faint at first, then becoming more intense minute by minute, until the whole page was like a vibrant jungle of letters. We couldn’t read it. Whatever kind of lettering it was either hasn’t been invented yet, or else was invented so long ago that the whole world has forgotten about it. All I can tell you is this: it told our life story. How do I know that? I just do. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me.
“Well, that’s that,” Red Rigor said. “So off you go now, through that passage, there, see? Out into the wood, you’ll have no difficulty making out the ambassador’s tree, and it’ll be obvious enough what she’s needing.”
“Just a minute,” David said. “Aren’t you going to explain what this is all about?”
“What what’s all about, my loon?” Red Rigor looked surprised.
“Well, this,” David said. “This place. This book. What we’re doing here!”
“Well, you surely know what you’re doing here, do you not?” our friend said.
“No,” David answered.
“Well yes,” I said, “we’re here to help Jollyunder – sorry, Helly – you know, her.”
“Well I don’t know about help,” Red Rigor said. “I presumed you’re here to pick up after her – to sort out the mess she left. You’re not? Did she not send you? Oh. No? Ah now, well, now that’s a surprise…. Well, never mind, you’re here now. No, when I think about it I suppose she wouldn’t have sent you – she wouldn’t have liked to put you in any danger. Ha! Danger! More likely wouldn’t have liked to put you to any trouble – it’s not as if boys like you don’t thrive on a bit of danger. That’s her whole problem, our Helle-Yunta – always trying to avoid trouble. I daresay that’s how she “forgot” her burden in the first place – because it was just too much trouble.”
“Burden?” we said.
“Oh yes,” Red Rigor said. “They all need their burden, the ambassadors. It’s the only thing that holds them down, isn’t it? Otherwise, what do you get? It’s all la-de-da, everything’s happy, everything’s fluffy, isn’t life wonderful – and the result? Nothing gets done. Well, that was obvious enough, wasn’t it?” He was pretty much roaring by now.
David protested, “but we loved Jollyunder. And she was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us.”
“Oh, the most wonderful thing that ever happened to you” – he said it all snarly, mimicking. “Did it never occur to you that she was there for something more important than making you happy? Did it never occur to you that she had serious work to do? Good grief, the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance and you want some little gnome to come along and amuse you?”
We were taken aback, and it all seemed a bit unfair, but he had got pretty worked up by this time so we thought we better not say too much.
He calmed down gradually, with a few more grumbles (laziness – sloppy thinking – sheer want of RIGOUR – it’s always been the same with her, why she still gets employed I just do not know – that kind of thing). “Anyway,” he said, “your bit’s plain enough. You collect her Burden and you take it back to her. Here – you’d better take this, when I think about it, hers’ll be rotten by now, sitting out in the forest all this time.” He ducked under his desk and pulled out a wad of sacking, very rough material, though clean and neatly folded. Then he glanced at my Christ-child. “What are you doing with that?” he enquired.
I told him I’d picked it up by accident but he didn’t seem interested. “Well you won’t want to carry this as well, I daresay,” he said, “so you’d better take this.” He handed David the heavy lump of sacking.
“What are we supposed to do with this?” David said, holding up the sacking, which we now saw was a folded bag.
“Just drop it in there, it’ll be fine,” Red Rigor answered, and started heaving the ledger back off the desk to put it away again. “Now off you go,” he finished, “and good luck to you. I’ll assume you know the way back?”
He seemed so brisk and anxious to get on with whatever he was doing that we thought we better stop holding him up.
“I daresay if we can find our way here then we can find our way back,” David said sarcastically, but Red Rigor just answered, “that’s the way, that’s the way,” and slapped him on the back.
“You’ll see her name on the door, by the way,” he called after us as we ducked under the low arch of the passage he had pointed out. “Just open it and go on through, it’s not as though you’ll need to knock, is it?”
We went on through the low whitewashed stone passage till after a while it opened out into a dead straight corridor with doors all down it. I can’t remember if this corridor was made of stone or not, I just remember the doors – they were dark polished wood, and only on one side, in the right-hand wall. We started looking at the names on these doors. And wouldn’t you just believe it? We couldn’t read the writing. I think it might have been like the writing in the big ledger, anyway it was totally incomprehensible. We must have walked past about a hundred of these doors, gawking at them and trying to make some sense out of them, when David said, “Oh for God’s sake, let’s just go through this one.”
He’d been complaining about the sack he been given, he said it was really heavy and sore to hold, all prickly. “Let’s just get on and see what happens,” he said.
So we opened the door and went through, and blow me if we didn’t land up right in the middle of the Forest again. Well, I suppose it was the same forest. The annoying thing was that we could see the wall of the building we’d just come out of, stretching up and down in both directions as far as we could see, and all full of doors. We could have opened any one of them and got into this same place! “Somebody had a sense of humour,” David growled and we turned back to look at the Forest.
It was slightly different from how we’d found it before – or more like, perhaps, it had carried on from where we’d left it when the security guards caught us. The trees here were smaller, and they were all fruit-trees of one kind or another, and all covered with fruit – red apples, blood-gold peaches, yellow pears, brown hazels, purple olives, crimson haws, black elders, any kind of fruit, both the wild kind and the kind you find in the shops. There were a lot that we didn’t even recognise. Did I mention it was wasn’t a sketch forest? Anyway it wasn’t, it looked like the real thing. We wondered if it had all become “real” because of what we’d started doing, or if it had been real all the time and when we’d been changing it from a sketch forest to a real forest it had just been playing some kind of trick on our minds.
“What are we supposed to do now?” David said.
I said, “Find her tree, that’s what he told us.”
“How do we know which is hers?” Well, that was a question neither of us had the answer to. So we wandered. I don’t know how long we wandered. I can’t tell you how strange it felt, because it wasn’t like being in an orchard, where everything is fairly neat and the trees are laid out in lines: it was like being in a forest, with thickets of grass and tall weeds and tangles of bramble, except that the trees were full of big ripe fruit. It was warm and sunny, I suppose it felt like early autumn. There was no-one about, but it wasn’t particularly quiet; blackbirds and thrushes and chaffinches and all kinds of other birds were hopping about in the trees eating the fruit. I don’t know why we didn’t do the same, because by now we were shaky and light-headed with hunger. Our nice fussing nurses hadn’t offered us a bite or a drink.
We could have gutsed ourselves stupid here, but we didn’t touch a single fruit. Why not? It’s queer that, isn’t it? I think we felt that doing something like stopping and eating would mean we’d stopped thinking about Jollyunder and what we had to do for her. At last we had a clear direction, in a way, and we had to focus our minds on what we came to do.
Finally, when we saw it, we had no doubt. It was funny, we just knew it couldn’t be any other – it was as if our whole journey suddenly came together and showed us we’d been following a trail of clues all the time.
It was a holly-tree. Not a very big one, but very dark and green in amongst all the other paler kinds of trees. We saw it from a good way off through the trunks and branches. It had a sad, sombre kind of look, it wasn’t covered with berries like Christmas holly; but when we came to it and went round to the other side of it, we saw that on one single branch there was this bunch, this great clump, of berries hanging – oh, heavy! Weighing the branch down. If you’ve ever seen a swarm of bees on a tree – just like a mass of bees, clinging together in a great clump the size of a football – only of course this was berries, not bees – that was what it was like. They weren’t really red berries: they looked as though they’d gone past red, had become nearly purple, some of them nearly black. I know this must sound fanciful, but the feeling this clump of berries gave us, it was like we were looking at some great, festering wound in the side of the holly tree. It made you almost wince with pain just look at it.
“All right,” David said, “it goes in the bag, doesn’t it?”
“That’s it, is it?” I said. “That’s her Burden? It couldn’t be anything else, I suppose.”
David shrugged. We looked around. After a bit I shrugged too. “Open up then,” I said.
The branch that the berries were on was quite low, and not very thick. David held open the sack under it, and I managed to half snap the branch, and the weight of berries broke the rest of it, and in it fell.
“Bloody hell!” David exclaimed. “I’ll never carry this!”
I felt the bag. It was incredibly heavy, but it would have been too awkward trying to carry it both of us together, so we said we just have to take turns with it. I helped heave it up onto his shoulder – and I felt what he meant about how rough and sore the material was – and that was when I noticed the other thing about the berries. They weren’t like ordinary holly-berries, which are fairly dry fruit. They were bleeding – like purple blood. I could already see it starting to drip through the bottom of the sack, presumably from where the bunch had hit when it broke off the tree. It looked as though David was carrying some badly wounded thing slung over his shoulder.
“Where now?” he grunted, anxious to be off. “Back to Jenny’s place in the wall?”
“I suppose so,” I said, “if we can find it. I don’t know how we’ll get that sack through it, though. We’d better wait till night-time anyway.”
“And where then?” he said.
I shrugged. “Back through the town, I suppose, out on the road we came in by, back to our cart –”
He cut in, “– and get pulled home by two skeletons: yeah, very likely. Let’s face it, we’re not going to make it, Charlie.”
“Well,” I said, “the first thing I want to do anyway is get back to the hut with the crib. I want to dump Baby Jesus back in it.”
“Why?” He said. “I don’t understand why you can’t just drop it. We don’t owe these people anything.”
“No,” I said. “But I just want to put him back in his crib anyway, all right? Anyway, we could hide in the hut till nightfall.”
“When did you last have a pee?” David said.
“Oh yes,” I said, in surprise. “I must have dried up. That’s a nice change. Come to think of it, my hearing seems better too, and I don’t feel as shaky.”
“No,” he said, “and my back’s stopped aching, which is not what I’d have expected, lugging this thing around. Funny that, isn’t it?”
We went on. The whole forest was on a slope, and we followed the lie of the land uphill. I suppose we both had the idea that the fruit forest would be lower down than the forest of big trees, so if we went onto the higher ground we’d be able to find our nativity hut. That was about the only idea of any kind of direction that either of us had.
It was some struggle, I can tell you. We took turns to carry the bag – David carried the Christ-child when I took my turn – and the juice from the berries kept dripping through the sacking and left what looked like a trail of dark blood behind us wherever we went. We didn’t see anyone and we didn’t hear anyone, at least not until we finally reached the end of the slope where, sure enough, we left the fruit forest behind and were among the big trees again. Then we saw the sun just starting to go down over – way over, wherever – in the west. There was no sign of the hut, or the security wall, or any of the buildings of the Hollywood rest-home, or the town with its traffic and its mean streets, which must all be out there somewhere. We seemed totally lost.
Then we heard the sound of dogs. I don’t know how you know these things – it’s not as if either of us had ever been hunted before – but we knew right away that these were sniffer dogs and it was us they were tracking. We waited a few moments. It was a sinister yelping and baying, and it was definitely coming nearer.
“Come on,” I said – David was carrying the sack – “we have to run.”
“What’s the point,” he panted, but he ran anyway. It wasn’t long before he was out of breath. “Take a side each,” he gasped, “we’re not going to make it anyway.”
So we took a side each of the sack and dragged Jollyunder’s burden along behind us. We could only hope it didn’t matter what kind of state it arrived in, supposing we ever were to arrive. And the sack dragged and snagged behind us through the dead leaves and the roots and left a wide dark bleeding track, and I could swear that once or twice I heard the berries crying out as if in pain. But we dragged it and stumbled along, and all the time the sound of the hunt got nearer and clearer behind us. And then we heard the shouts of men, and we knew we had been spotted.
“The hut!” I screamed, my voice all high and squeaky. “There it is!”
The hut was just as we had left it that morning. I wondered if someone had moved it in the night and that’s how it ended up in the forest when we woke up – you have these crazy stupid thoughts when you’re in a total panic and time slows down and everything seems to happen in slow motion. I could see the security men now when I glanced back – about twenty of them, a whole line of them at the front with big mean-looking dogs straining at their leashes. Why the hell did they need that kind of set-up to haul in a couple of old geezers who went on walkabout from their old people’s home? It seemed really a bit over the top.
“What do we do?” David yelled.
“Into the hut!” I squeaked back.
“What’s the point! What’s the point!” He was screaming, but he kept running. You do that. You’ve nowhere to run, so you pick somewhere, anywhere, and that place means safety – it doesn’t really but you pretend it does.
We reached the hut, we flung open the door, we staggered inside, and as David pulled the door to I carefully put Baby Jesus back in his crib for his plastic mum and dad, and the shepherds gazed on down as though he’d never been away.
And then I glanced up, and saw David standing really strangely, with one arm flung up as if to shield his eyes, and a look of absolute terror on his face.
They were about as far away from us down the grey tunnel as when we had first seen them, but they weren’t sitting at their table now: they were striding up towards us, and there seemed to be an awful purposefulness about their manner. As they approached they grew, and pretty soon we could see they were more than natural size.
Their strides were giant strides and their gaunt grey faces, which had somehow horrified us so when we saw them before, were now openly snarling, as though some part of them had turned into something more beast than human. Their eyes were set and staring, and you got the feeling they were approaching at some terrible speed, as if out of unimaginable distance: I could swear there was some kind of whistling or shrieking of air about them, just from the sheer speed they were coming at.
There was nowhere for us to run to. We had slammed the door of the little shed behind us as we tumbled in. I did try to get it undone again, because my first thought was to get back outside – the security men and their dogs couldn’t surely be worse than encountering these Two face to face – but for some reason I couldn’t budge it: the lock had jammed or something. We turned back to face them, put our backs to the door, and cowered.
Closer they came, and by now they were giant-size, and the fall of their feet was making everything shake and vibrate. I don’t know what had happened to the nativity shed, but for those two to have fitted into it the way they did it must have become a great monster of a place too. But of course everything was the grey tunnel, so maybe that explains why we didn’t feel like we were in the little shed any more – apart from the door and the end wall it was in, of course.
And now they had almost reached us, and they towered above us – and that was what threw us into action. It was David of course – he suddenly shouted, “Run forward! We can get under them!”
Well, I could see that for myself plain enough, just from the height of them, but I could also imagine them reaching down and grabbing us up if we got any nearer, or just stamping on us, so it didn’t necessarily strike me as the soundest of plans. But when David ran forward I did too – he may even have grabbed hold of me and pulled me – and we scooted out and between their striding legs, right under them. Not too far, though, because it was the grey tunnel ahead of us, and that didn’t look too attractive, and anyway we both turned to see what the two old monsters would be doing next.
We somehow hadn’t expected their next move. They stopped when they got to the wall, and then they both, in a kind of unison, head-butted it – I mean a ram-like, splintering sort of head-butting that put the front part of their heads – their faces, right back to their ears, clear through the wall. And they stopped like that, and roared.
It was quite deliberate, it wasn’t a roar of surprise or pain at finding a wall in their way or being stopped in their tracks. They obviously had meant to do exactly this, and they just stood roaring – luckily not on our direction. I can only imagine the shock and terror of the guys on the outside of the wall. We did hear some shouts of dismay – that’s what they sounded like – but a lot clearer than that was the yelping and whimpering of dogs, so the dogs must have found it pretty unnerving as well.
So they came to a standstill there, with their heads through the wall; and there they started to disintegrate: just to fall apart, in front of our eyes – a bit like the beasts that had drawn our cart, I suppose, except that the way they disintegrated was – how can I put it, more vegetable-like and less animal-like: you know, they didn’t rot so much as moulder, they became less human-looking by the minute, with clothes and skin peeling off them layer by layer but not revealing anything underneath more than fibres and white mould-streaks like in rotten timber.
I don’t know how long we stood and watched those two gigantic forms just standing, motionless, mouldering away, until they became like something in a forest – old lopped tree-trunks, lifeless hulks. No fearfulness left in them anyway; all we had to think about now was the pursuit.
But David said, “They’re gone.”
“You mean the death-men?” I said, not quite getting his meaning.
“Them too,” David replied. “Death-men is good, that’s what we should call them.”
“If we speak about them at all,” I said. “Though it seems like they were on our side after all.”
“I don’t know,” David said. “Maybe they were just there like – like something that just has to be. It can’t help itself – it’s not on anyone’s side – it’s just – the way things are…” He tailed off. “Anyway,” he said, “there’s a door over there. Maybe it’s time we were going out.”
“What do you think will be there?” I wondered. “Back into the Forest, maybe?”.
“The Forest was back there.” David pointed. “Back there on the other side of our large friends – not this way, necessarily.”
So the little building we were in – the Jesus grotto, or whatever it was – seemed to have flipped itself round: the door was now in the opposite wall. That meant that to get out, we didn’t have to go any closer to the two decaying figures, which actually was quite a relief. “What are we waiting for?” I said, and put my hand on the handle.
The first thing we saw as we went through the door was forest, right enough. But it wasn’t the same. It was some way off, apart from anything else, and it was dark fir plantation, which isn’t real forest, is it. It was nowhere that we recognised. In the immediate foreground there seemed to be a lot of flowers growing, and that was quite bright and spring-like somehow, and it made us realise that we hadn’t seen flowers for quite a while. Forests are all full of different kinds of green and brown, they’re not such great places for colour apart from that. The flowers weren’t like the ones at Hollywood Home either, those kind of extra super-bright things, nothing natural. I guessed these were wild flowers that were growing around our feet, the colours were paler and softer, there were mainly blues, some pinks and violets. We trod carefully out past the doorway. It’s a funny thing how we’re not really used to flowers, are we? I mean apart from in flower-beds. We were walking through a meadow full of flowers, and we were automatically trying not to crush them, which was more or less impossible. I can’t remember if we were ever as careful as that with Jollyunder’s trails of flowers.
We still had our bleeding sack, except it didn’t seem to be bleeding quite so much any more, and it was thankfully lighter. We supposed it must have lost a lot of its contents along the way.
“We can take it in turns again,” I said, hoisting it onto my shoulder without a lot of difficulty.
It was strange, what a difference it made, the sack being lighter. Or it may just have been that we weren’t being chased by anyone. Either way, we both felt an awful lot better. In fact, we pretty soon realised we were in the best of spirits, weren’t even hungry any more.
David did some cartwheels through the flowers. I trudged along with the bag, I was quite happy to let him cartwheel away, as I’d never been much one for all that gymnastic carry-on. It took us a little while to realise there was another explanation for our lightness of heart, though we should have been able to work it out from the whole cartwheeling thing, not to mention the lack of aches and pains and needing to pee and everything. I was watching David, and it didn’t occur to me until he’d done about his tenth cartwheel that it wasn’t an old man I was looking at any more but a young boy. I don’t mean the age we really were, like in our twenties: I mean he was probably back to the age we were when Jollyunder first came to us. It’s not just aches and pains you have when you’re old, anyway, is it. I know this now. It’s more something to do with what’s in your heart: you just have a whole lot of care, that builds up over the years without you even noticing it. By care I don’t mean the kind of worries that are unnecessary – worry about money and property and keeping things tidy and well ordered, and all the other crap that we fill our adult lives with. When I say care I mean a sense of Death – but not in any bad way: it’s more as if we have a growing feeling of tenderness towards living things as we get older, but that goes with a feeling that we never really belonged in life anyway, or else a feeling that most of our life is taken up with saying goodbye to things – to people or to places that we’ve loved or whatever. And maybe that’s all a sort of preparation for when we have to make a final goodbye to everything, but there’s nothing bad about that either.
Anyway, David and I felt young, and that felt good, really good; but I was able to feel it while at the same time knowing all about the other stuff, the stuff about growing up and getting old. That’s an opportunity no-one ever normally gets, because when you’re young you don’t realise you’re young and you don’t care anyway – you certainly don’t appreciate it – and when you’re old you just regret the fact that you’re no longer young. But we were here in this meadow full of flowers, and we knew what it was like to be old: yet here we were, young! That was great. And of course, the big down-side to being young is that there’s generally someone trying to hassle you or push you around or put you down for something or other – for being wrong or for being loud or clumsy or just plain bad – but here there was no-one to do that to us either! So for that little time, it seemed like we had the best of everything.
David ran back up to me, panting like a puppy. “Wow,” he said, “that’s better.”
“You can take the bag now,” I grinned, and slung it over to him. He caught it easily, and threw it over his own shoulder. “And by the way,” I said, “you probably haven’t noticed with all your shenanigans, but these flowers are no ordinary flowers.”
“What are they? David said.
“Gillyflowers,” I said. I didn’t even know if they were at that stage, I just said it – it just came into my head. But then David bent down and started examining the flowers, and so I did too. And sure enough: there they were: those same small dreamy faces – sleeping faces, really – that, now I thought about it, I had often dreamt about through the course of my life, without realising that’s what I was dreaming about. We hadn’t seen those gillyflowers since we were – well, the age we seemed to have turned into now.
Pretty soon after that we realised where we were. We were going down the hill toward Miss Salford’s old place, towards Woeburn House. We hadn’t recognised it simply because you don’t, probably, immediately recognise the places where you grew up, not if you’ve been away from them for a long time.
“You do realise, don’t you,” David says “that that was the Dump we came through. That’s something that really has changed. Not even a nasty old bit of wire to catch hold of little Charlie’s trouser leg.”
I thought about this. “So where’s the Bad Shed?” I said
We stopped, and we did look back “I think I can see something up there,” David said. “I don’t know what it is though – doesn’t look like a shed.”
“I see something too,” I agreed. “It looks like a small chapel or something. You want to go back up and look?”
“Ah, bollocks to that,” David said “I don’t want anything more to do with that place, whatever it’s pretending to look like.”
“What do you think,” I said, as we tiptoed across the lawns some time later – no lawns at all really, the gillyflowers just went on where the lawn had been – “should we call in on old Miss Salford?”
“What, go in and say – howya doing?” David laughed. “- We got you sussed by the way, you old scumdod you.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “I don’t even know if we do have her sussed anyway. Was Jenny Miss Salford pretending to be Jenny, or is Miss Salford Jenny pretending to be Miss Salford? – or are they not even the same person? We were only guessing after all, weren’t we? Anyway she’d probably give us a right ticking off. Something tells me she wouldn’t approve of us turning aside from our mission.”
“The Burden?” David said, looking serious again. “No, I daresay you’re right.”
It would have been nice to have had a glimpse of the old bird, all the same, as we made our way across her property. I did think I saw her at one stage, standing in one of the windows looking down at us, but David said I was being fanciful.
And so we came to the end of our journey, and night was falling. As soon as we got out of the Woeburn House grounds, we recognised exactly where we were. It was the street where we’d grown up, not a doubt about it, and nothing changed. I wish I could tell you what the makes of the parked cars were along the road were, I mean what time they belonged to, but I’m afraid I can’t remember. All I was aware of – it caught us both at the same moment, I think – was an overwhelming tiredness. We crept back along that road, carrying the sack together, because it had got heavy again. It wasn’t that we got unhappy, or depressed, or old-feeling again: we just suddenly felt really shattered. We felt as if we needed to sleep for a year, both of us felt that same thing.
I suppose, to make everything neat and fitting-in, we should have gone into our house and there were Mum and Dad, just as if we really were nine or ten or eleven, or whatever we were. But Mum and Dad weren’t there: Vanessa was there, and she looked at us really strangely as we came in dragging our bag behind us over the threshold. I noticed it left a bruise-coloured mark on the door-bar, but Vanessa didn’t seem to make much fuss about that. I half got the impression she was sort of shrinking away from us against the wall, but I was too tired to pay attention properly. I don’t think I greeted her properly, that was because of the really strange way she was looking at me. I mumbled, “I’ll speak to you in a bit, Nessa. We just need to take this up to Jollyunder, and then I’ve got to sleep, I can hardly move.”
Jollyunder looked just the same. Well, maybe not exactly the same: I’m sure she raised her head slightly and turned it when we looked in. But her expression didn’t change – that grey, far-away expression that we’d grown so used to – hating it I suppose, really, as though it was some sort of mask she’d been forced to wear over her real face. It was very dim in the room, but it was a moment or two before I realised that the light wasn’t on, and that gave me a real start. It was dark outside by now, you see. It might have been the streetlight shining through the window I suppose – or the light from the landing, though I don’t think we’d put it on, there was only an upstairs switch when we were young; anyway, I’m not sure. It certainly was nothing like her old light back in the days when she glowed in the dark, but I’m sure the room wasn’t quite as dark as it should have been..
The bag seemed to have got even heavier. We dragged it over the threshold. The light was too dim to see if it was leaving any mark.
And now, for the first time for I don’t know how long, Jollyunder did pay attention. She almost sat up, I think – at any rate she moved her head round and her eyes fixed on the bag as it came towards her across the floor.
“We’ve brought you something, Jolly,” David said. “Apparently this is something you’ve been needing.”
And then Jollyunder spoke. She spoke in a way that she had never spoken with us before, when she had just used single words – baby words, that was all she had ever spoken before really. It was as though she’d been secretly learning to talk like an adult all those years she’d been more or less silent.
“Oh,” she said – “oh you bad boys, you’ve brought me my bag of Pain.”
Her voice was the same, but different. Still almost a baby-voice, but not quite – maybe the voice of a girl the same age we’d been when we were coming down through the fields – I mean, it didn’t have the tone of an adult. But what she said was adult enough: we knew that when she said you bad boys, she meant it like a thank-you; she meant we were bad boys for having put ourselves to any trouble on her account.
We didn’t stop to comment or to try and work out what it meant. “We’ll see you in the morning, Jolly,” I said.”I have to sleep now.”
But when the morning came – or the afternoon, more likely – and we’d finally dragged ourselves out of bed, Jollyunder wasn’t there. She’d gone – simply vanished. Vanessa had gone too.
“Why would Vanessa have taken her?” I kept muttering. There was something wrong, I could tell – everything just felt wrong.
“Maybe Jollyunder got her to take her,” David suggested. But then we saw the backpack baby-carrier – it was the one Vanessa had insisted we get to replace the old bike-seat carrier.
“Maybe they’ve just gone out for a walk,” David suggested. But that didn’t seem right. Vanessa would have taken the baby-carrier even if she’d been carrying Jollyunder in her arms, she was always well-organised about things like that, you could be sure she’d have had a picnic lunch all packed up in her bag too, and half a dozen books and games just in case she thought some entertainment might be needed.
“Jollyunder spoke last night,” David reminded me. “I mean, like an adult. Maybe something’s changed. Maybe she got Vanessa to take her off somewhere.”
That was a possibility. But I was still niggled by the beds. Vanessa’s bed had been made, Jollyunder’s wasn’t. If they had gone together, both beds would have been made. Vanessa would have insisted on that, I was sure: she was a very tidy person.
Then I saw that Vanessa’s bags were gone too, and all her stuff. But Jollyunder’s spare clothes and other stuff had been left. No, if they’d both gone, they definitely hadn’t gone together.
“Did Vanessa leave and then Jollyunder woke up and saw she was gone and went off to look for her?” David said. He was looking worried now too.
Well, we never found out. Jollyunder had gone. We never saw or heard from her again. I called at Vanessa’s flat when we got back home, but her flatmate said she’d gone off to stay with an old friend, she didn’t know who, or where, and she hadn’t left a contact address. I contacted her parents, but they didn’t know where she was.
Eventually I got a letter from her. She asked me not to try and get in touch with her, said she wanted a fresh start and she wanted to put everything behind her. By that she meant life with me and Jollyunder. She wrote, “I know this is something I’m going to feel guilty about for the rest of my life – just walking out on Jollyunder. I didn’t want to and I wished I could keep her with me forever. But,” she went on, “what I saw that night, when you and David came back to the B & B, it freaked me out so much I knew the only thing I could do was get out. I went into Jollyunder’s room around midnight, and she was sleeping all cuddled up to that thing you brought – as though it was her soft toy or something – and that freaked me out a bit too. I’m sorry, and I know I’m being a coward, but being nursemaid to Jollyunder was one thing: having to nurse a boyfriend who’s suddenly turned into an old man – that’s just too much. I can’t do it.”
So that was it. That told us Vanessa hadn’t taken Jollyunder with her, in case we still had any doubts about that. But the main thing it told us was that when David and I had got back to the hotel we were looking like old men again. I should have realised, but I didn’t. I thought about tracking Vanessa down and letting her see that I was me again – I mean, we’d gone back to looking our proper ages again – but something inside me knew that wouldn’t help. It wasn’t just the sight of us as old men, anyway: it was also Jollyunder and her Burden. It was all too much for her – and I was just going to have to leave her alone. I thought she might come round eventually, but she never did.
So that was that: Jollyunder, who kind of represented my past, and Vanessa, who was all about my hopes and plans for the future – I lost them both on that same morning.
I felt surprisingly all right about it, eventually. I thought of what we’d escaped from, in that other place we visited, and you have to be thankful for some things, don’t you. And then there was Miss Salford’s place when we were coming back home, and the gillyflowers – I don’t know when we visited them – if it was some time in the past, or the present, or if it was in our past but nobody else’s, or if it was in a future that we’ve still not yet come to, or just a time that wasn’t in time at all – I just don’t know what that was all about: but I’m pretty sure that somehow, somewhere, sometime, the gillyflowers are busy recovering, and I believe that’s got to be a good thing.
14. Eleanor Justice.
It was evening by now. You could see the city lights spreading away into the darkness. They listened to my whole story in complete silence – those three smart professional people, and their “case”, this girl who’d messed up her life and who they were trying to get back onto the straight and narrow, this Eleanor Justice. Oh, and of course the old biddy in the corner, scribbling away at her notes or her sketches or whatever it was. Well, I couldn’t be sure she’d been listening of course, but the others all listened in intense silence.
When I’d finally bumbled to a halt, one of them – it was the psychologist chap – he asked me how I would assess the whole experience I’d described.
I didn’t really know what he meant, but seeing he was a shrink I said, “Do you mean, should I be seeing a shrink?”
He laughed, in that reassuring way they have. “No, it’s a genuine question. This isn’t an experience most people have. What do you think actually happened to you and your brother?”
“Well,” I said, relaxing a bit – trusting him despite myself – “Apart from fetching Jollyunder’s ‘burden’, which I’m not even going to start trying to comment on, I think I may have had a vision of the future – well, we both had it, David and me, it was the same for both of us, so it wasn’t just my own absolutely personal vision of the future. At any rate, it was a vision of a future, I don’t know if it was the future.”
I paused there, just trying to collect my thoughts; but he said: “Go on.” So I did.
“This all happened fifty years ago,” I said. “I mean when David and I went to try and rescue Jollyunder. We were young chaps in our twenties then, so in some ways it was quite a shock, the kind of future that we saw. I suppose over the course of my life I’ve seen things gradually slipping closer to what we saw, so it wouldn’t be such a shock for a couple of youngsters having that same experience now – except I guess if they had it now, it’d be something even more shocking than what we saw, wouldn’t it? Anyway, what we saw then, and what I’ve seen in my life, is things decaying, things going to rat-shit, rich people getting richer, poor people getting poorer, money being more important than goodness, or even justice, young people feeling they’ve had enough of society’s bullshit and kind of taking the law into their own hands, forming their own little mini-societies. A lot of that seems to be what’s happening now.”
“So,” Dr Shrink said: “a vision of the future. Is that something worthwhile, having a vision of the future?”
“That’s a bit harsh, Frank,” I heard someone murmur – the social work woman, I think it was.
“You know,” I said, “I think that’s all a bit incidental, if you know what I mean. I still think we write our own future. I think that’s what David and I discovered. We went out and created a scenario on that blank white landscape, it was the scenario we needed. So it was our future, and for some reason we had to be old in that scenario of our future. For some reason we had to be out of energy, if you know what I mean.”
“You think,” Miss Social Worker said, “that’s what happens to you when you get older?”
“I think that’s what getting older is,” I said. “Nothing else changes. We go on being the same person we started as; we don’t get wiser, or anything – that “wisdom of age” idea’s just a trick we try to pull off to defend ourselves against younger guys like you, who seem so pushy and full of life.”
She laughed, but looked thoughtful. “Is that why Vanessa left you, do you think?” she said. “She thought you’ll never change – and inside you there’s always just going to be this tired old man waiting to get out?”
I scrutinised her now. That was quite some statement – I mean for someone as young as her to make. She was a nice-looking girl, she had a big smooth forehead framed by her straight black hair that she had tied back tight. She looked a bit severe, maybe – a bit strained too – probably you do get strained in her line of work, probably work too hard, or feel things too deeply or something. Probably she wasn’t that young, but anyone under fifty looks young to me nowadays. But I certainly realised I might have underestimated her, when I thought of her as just some smart professional dealing with another “case”. She was one of those people you’d describe as “having something about her”.
“A tired old man waiting to get out?” I said. “Yes. That’s the Death-Men, that’s what they are – and I suppose that’s what we’d become in Vanessa’s eyes. I think I can understand the kind of horror she must have felt. She was a lovely girl, Vanessa, and actually, I missed her for a long time, it really gutted me the way she left. But I can’t blame her, I really can’t. I’d like to be able to tell her that it was all all right, and I understand what she must have felt.”
“You only experienced being an old man for a day or two,” Madam Lawyer said. “Presumably you got back to feeling normal again.”
I looked at her too. She was big and black and I thought she was someone you’d have to watch your step with – a bit like old Miss Salford, I suppose, like she wasn’t someone who’d take any nonsense from anyone. Yet she had a look in her eyes as though she laughed a lot when she wasn’t on duty. Clearly I’d underestimated her too. “No,” I replied. “I don’t think I ever went back to feeling normal. Not ever, really. I think I can fairly say I had my guts kicked out of me during that time we had in the other place – the future, or whatever it was – and I never recovered. I think I can say that for both of us. From that last day in the gillyflower meadow to this – fifty years – I never really felt what it was like to be young again. I never married, you know, never had kids. David did, kids all over the place, but his marriages didn’t last. He got married three times, silly idiot: I think each of those three ladies suddenly woke up one morning and looked at him and thought – just like you said – oh my God, I’m young and I’m living with an old man – I’m out of here.”
And that’s when the miraculous thing happened.
Ellie – she’d been silent the whole time, just staring down at the table, but listening I thought, I mean you could feel her listening – this girl Ellie suddenly reached her hand across to me and cupped my face in it, just held it there, and I could see tears pouring over her cheeks out of those dark-rimmed eyes. “My poor boys,” she said softly. “Oh my poor boys….”
That was all she said. And I still didn’t recognise her, not at all, I hadn’t recognised her when I first saw her and I still didn’t recognise her now. With my eyes, I mean. But of course I knew it was her, just from those seven words – I knew it couldn’t have been anyone else. No-one else could have spoken about us in exactly that way.
You might think I’d been pretty thick not to have guessed. It’s just that she looked completely different to how I’d known her – and the whole Eleanor Justice thing had thrown me a bit too. You generally only see what you expect to see.
I said, “Ellie? Jollyunder? I can’t believe it’s you.”
And she just went on crying. “It is, it is,” she was sobbing.
“I don’t get how you’re so young,” I said. “You can’t be a day over twenty-five, from the look of you.”
“No birth certificate,” Madam Lawyer said sternly. “No record of her at all.”
“And what have you been doing?” I said – I was wailing more than speaking, I felt this great bubble of shock and outrage coming up from my stomach “- what kind of life have you been living? Stealing? Pushing drugs? Why, Jolly? I thought David and I did all that so you could be well again, so you could -”
“I know, I know,” she said. “And you’ve lost all your life so that I could be like this… ”
“I don’t understand,” I said. I seriously didn’t. “Why? Why?” I’d grabbed her wrist by now, I was gripping it, shaking it up and down. I suddenly couldn’t understand anything.
“I didn’t come to be that – to be that Jollyunder,” she whispered. “That’s not what I came to do. I had a task. I am an ambassador.”
“Yes I know, I know that,” I said. “But what sort of ambassador, what sort of task? How did everything go so wrong? I thought you came to make the world a better place, not to help make it worse.”
“My poor boy,” she said. “I’ve only done what I had to do, I only carried out my task.”
“But what task?” I said. “Have you done anything good in your life at all?” It was a terrible thing to say to her, considering I’d no idea what kind of life she might have had – and I could ask the same of myself: what good have I ever done in my life? Maybe everyone could ask that. Most of us just try to get by in our life and not run into too much pain or distress.
But then she said, in a very clear voice: “It was to listen to your story.”
And that stopped me in my tracks. I was working myself up into a right old paddy but she just stopped me dead. “To listen to my story?” I said, incredulous. “What, the one I’ve just told just now? That was your task?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I don’t understand what’s so important about it,” I said. “I mean, I know it’s important to me, it’s been my life after all. But I can’t honestly see that it could have any importance to anyone else. How could me telling that have been your mission – the thing you came from the other side to -”
But this girl called Ellie, she just put her finger on my lips to shush me up; and then she turned round, first one way then the other, to look at the other three, the lawyer and the psychologist and the social-work person. “Here’s three who came to listen with me: they found your story worth listening to,” she smiled.
“Yes, all of them busy people,” I grunted. “They’ll have forgotten all about it by the end of the week.”
“No,” Ellie said, so emphatically it made me start upright, like I was a soldier snapping to attention. “No, they have been carefully chosen. They won’t forget.”
“How, chosen?” I said.
It was at that moment that the old sketching biddy in the corner got to her feet, and sort of slid along the wall and out of the door. She gave a little wave as she left, a sort of private good-bye to Dr Frank, and closed the door very softly behind her.
The others never changed their expression, so I thought my earlier surmise must have been correct, that she was just some kind of eccentric fixture around the place who didn’t bother anyone and was just allowed to sit in on private meetings. Except –
No – no, there was something about her, about the way she moved…. I’d been so intent on my own story of course, I hadn’t really paid any attention to her. Now it suddenly hit me. “That was Vanessa, wasn’t it,” I said dully.
Dr Frank chuckled. He was a big man and, like I said, he had a beard – a big brown one and a big belly and he had a kindly air about him. “She won’t hold it against you that you didn’t recognise her,” he said. “She didn’t come here for nostalgic reunions, just to hear something you might have to say.”
“Like – what?” I said. “Did I say it? What was I supposed to say?”
“Just that you forgave her,” he said. “That was all. Small, but necessary, in my opinion.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Vanessa’s been coming to me for some time,” Dr Frank said. “For therapy, you understand. She’s had personal problems, some of which we traced, in our sessions together, to an event which occurred when she was in her twenties – something which had left her with a lasting, and overwhelming, feeling of guilt.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“It’s the stock-in-trade of a therapist’s work,” Dr Frank shrugged. “But naturally, there were aspects of her experience which I found odd. However, on one particular day something rather strange happened. It was the day when I had to interview Ellie here and make a psychological assessment of her, that was to help the judge – the one who’s trying her case – to reach a sensible decision when it comes to passing sentence. So we talked together – for a couple of hours, I should think – and I found her a nice young woman and of course you think – you always do – how is it nice kids manage to get themselves into so much trouble? But I also felt I wasn’t really getting anywhere with her, if you know what I mean. I felt she was going through the motions of confiding in me because this was what the courts were expecting of her, but that she was somewhere else, somewhere locked up deep inside herself. Anyway we finished our interview and I opened the door for her and we said good-bye, and her social worker – that’s Maria here – was sitting waiting for her in the waiting room; but Vanessa also happened to be there, waiting for her next appointment with me. And the moment Ellie stepped out through the door Vanessa leaped to her feet and clapped her hand over her mouth and made some kind of inarticulate exclamation and then looked as though she was going to faint. But Ellie – she went straight over and sat her down and sat down beside her with her arm round her, to comfort her, and I suddenly thought, Oh my God – there she is! That’s the Ellie I haven’t managed to see, the real Ellie.”
“She recognised her?” I said. I was quite aghast. “Vanessa recognised – Ellie? How was it I didn’t?”
“Oh,” Dr Frank chuckled. “You’re a man. Like me. We don’t recognise things – not until they wallop us in the guts. Don’t worry about it. But for these two it was the reunion of a lifetime, as you can imagine. And it’s also the reason I’m here today. I had the pair of them into my consulting room as quick as I could, I can tell you; and Ellie insisted on Maria coming in too – and so our conspiracy was hatched. Sally” – he indicated Madam Lawyer – “was the only one who was still missing; but Ellie, who by this time, I can report, had suddenly transformed into a completely different person, said we would only have to wait a few days and our circle would be complete.”
“Yes, well” – this was Sally the Lawyer butting in now “- and I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t some foul play. There was a perfectly good lawyer assigned to Ellie’s case – he’d been appointed by the court because Ellie hadn’t made any request of her own for a lawyer – and my firm doesn’t normally even handle cases like Ellie. So the first I even noticed her was at the foot of a staircase in the courthouse, and at our feet there lay her own unfortunate brief, who’d taken a tumble down this stone staircase and managed to break his leg, poor man. So that was him off work for three months, and Ellie’s hearing coming up within the next three weeks.”
“She asked you to act for her?” I said.
“It was all uncannily easy,” Sally the Lawyer said. She had a pinched, sort of disapproving look on her face as she said this, but you could see clear as clear that she was actually as chuffed as anything to be representing Ellie. I knew that feeling well enough! She went on, “Suddenly all the work that I had on my schedule seemed to mysteriously evaporate and there was no way, without lying, that I could tell Ellie I was too busy to take her on. So that was that, and here I am, wondering what on God’s earth I’ve got myself into.”
“None of you knew each other before?” I said, indicating the three of them.
“Sally and I vaguely recognised each other,” Maria said, “you know, from court days. We both work in similar areas – trying to sort out the messes that some people make of their lives, hoping we don’t burn ourselves out before we’re forty.” Her voice was strained, and I could hear years of bitterness and disappointment in it. She went on, “You get a good view of the dark side of human nature in my job – and it’s certainly not one you grew up thinking you’d ever have to pay too much attention to.”
“That goes for all of us to some degree,” Dr Frank agreed. “And we’re all given a specific kind of training to help us deal with – how shall I say? – the dark matter we have to deal with in our jobs. But I’ve often wondered if we do things the right way. For example, as a psychologist, with a scientific training, I’m only really allowed to think in certain ways: what’s wrong with this person, how can I fix him up to get him up and running again, do I prescribe drugs, talking therapy, etcetera. But I’ve always had a lurking suspicion that people were actually there for something, even the worst-case deadbeats, even the psychotics and the terminally depressed. That there was actually nothing wrong with them at all, deep down underneath, but they were all just part of a vast intricate pattern of lives, and that they were simply playing some necessary part in that pattern. So I’ll say thank you, Mr Justice, I think your story has confirmed these thoughts quite unequivocally.”
“Your story certainly gives me some hope,” Maria said.
“It’s the biggest load of balderdash I’ve ever heard,” Sally the Lawyer scowled. “But the nonsense I’ve heard from you and the nonsense I’ve heard from Ellie appear to confirm each other exactly, and as it’s obvious that you haven’t been in communication, I can only suppose there’s something going on here which is entirely outside the range of our normal understanding.”
“You see,” Ellie said to me, “This is what I’ve been doing. To bring these three together, in this one room, on this particular day – it took lots of planning. Years of planning. Many bad deeds, one or two good ones: but all so they could meet here, together, and hear this story.”
I almost saw what she was meaning. Almost – I couldn’t get it with my understanding, so to speak. It was only when I thought of that corridor somewhere in the secret passages at the back of the Hollywood Home, the corridor with all the doors that opened out into the forest of fruit-trees – then, somehow, I got it. I couldn’t understand it, but I could feel it. “So is your mission finished, then?” I said.
“Finished, yes,” she replied simply. “All done.”
That sounded exactly like Jollyunder long ago, when she’d finished on her potty. That made me grin.
“And what’ll you do now?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Serve a sentence? Perhaps not, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. My work’s done. These three will do something together.”
“They will? What’ll they do?”
“Don’t know that either. Not my business. Important, though.”
I turned to Dr Frank, who smiled back at me benignly; at Maria the social worker, who just spread her hands in a gesture like well, what can you do? – at Sally the Lawyer, who was drumming her fingers rather impatiently on the table-top. “So do you guys have plans?” I asked.
“This is the first time we’ve even met all together,” Sally Lawyer said.
“No plans, as far as I know,” Dr Frank smiled.
“We’ve no idea what it is we’re supposed to do,” was Maria’s contribution, but she didn’t look too bothered about it. “First thing is to get to know each other, I imagine….”
Everyone kind of looked at Ellie then – expectantly, I suppose: like, come on Ellie, tell us what we have to do next. But Ellie simply sat there, with a quiet serene smile on her face, looking at no-one in particular, but just as if waiting. It reminded me strangely of Red Rigor, when he was sitting waiting for us to sign his book – looking like he’d quite happily sit and wait for ever.
But I was really paying attention to the three of them now – these three strangers who it seemed were the real purpose of this strange meeting. Funny how, to begin with, I’d thought them more or less unimportant, incidental, just half-bored official people who had to sit through this old codger’s ramblings in order to be able to confirm something in some report so some judge could decide whether to put this Eleanor Justice person in prison for a couple of years or whether to have her assigned to some squad painting garden fences in old folks’ gardens or whatever. But now I could see clearly enough that there was something else about them, each one – something that I hadn’t noticed, something very special. I had the weird impression that they were glowing – that’s the word that seems to describe it best, though it was nothing you could see with your eyes – that they were glowing with some sort of invisible presence. I don’t know if they were ordinary people, or if they were in fact some others from that place Jollyunder came from – ambassadors, maybe – or if there’s even any real difference between the ones who come from there and so-called ordinary people. I guess they’re all souls, after all, souls who are going to inhabit the gillyflowers, whose job is to make sure that the living are properly alive.
When David and I were told that word “ambassador” – when we understood that Jollyunder had come into the world on some special Mission – I guess we just assumed it would be Something Big: some deed, or perhaps some message, that you could put down in a history book as an important event – the founding of a Movement, say, or the overthrowing of a tyrant. But that’s only because we were like very young children just learning to read: we need the words to be spelled out in big clear letters, when we’re just learning. But life’s not really like that: the writing in real life is very small, all loaded down with details like in a big old-fashioned novel. If life’s like a book, then it’s a book you have to read very carefully and closely, or you could miss the really important thing that’s just happened, perhaps right next to you – certainly not somewhere obvious, like in some capital city with all the TV cameras covering it. Jollyunder had been sent from her place simply to make sure that this meeting of these three people would happen, and that – somehow because of hearing her story from me – well, who could tell?… They may be doing something right now – something really important – or they could still be sitting scratching their heads and wondering what on earth it is they’re supposed to be doing.
“So -” I turned to Ellie – to Jollyunder, who I still couldn’t quite see in that strange, quiet young woman – it was like an act of faith, to keep whispering to myself, it’s Jollyunder, it’s really Jollyunder – “So, you’ll be going into retirement – just the same as me. Nothing particularly to do with your life any more?” I tried to make it sound light and conversational, but I had started to feel a terrible heaviness in me, a sadness – fine, these nice people having all their story ahead of them that I and Jollyunder had no further part in: that was all good, but we were kind of left over now, discarded like orange peel that’s no longer needed to wrap the orange in.
“That’s right,” Ellie said, returning my look with a faint, rather bleak, grin. “Nothing left, really.”
“Oh yes, speaking of that,” Sally Lawyer said, “can I just point out that it would help enormously at Ellie’s court hearing if she were able to give a permanent address – say, with an older relative?”
When I realised what she was saying, I felt such a sudden beating of my heart, such an explosion of hope – or something – that it made me gasp. It blew the heaviness right away, at any rate. It was a sense that I might be able, in some way, to make my life complete after all, despite that feeling I’d had for so long, that I’d had the guts knocked out of me. “Are you saying Ellie could come and live with me,” I stammered, “- like long ago?”.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Sally Lawyer said. She winked. “You know us lawyers – anything to make our job more trouble-free.”
“We could retire together, Charlie-boy,” Ellie chuckled quietly. “If you’d like that. I know I would. We could retire together; and then we could go home together.”
Yes – how else was I going to answer? Yes, that made me the happiest I’d felt in sixty years.