Authors: Janice Brown
lives with her long-term husband in Central Scotland. She has written several books of teenage fiction. When not writing, her chief delights are travelling, knitting Alpaca scarves, attempting to learn Mandarin and adoring her five grandchildren.
By the same author
Â© Janice Brown 2012
ISBN e: 978-1-905207-88-6
For Rena and Robert
Rain is falling on Hartsend, darkening the stone needle of the War Memorial and the tattered red wreaths left two months ago by the Boys' Brigade. It's clattering on the roof of the Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice shop in Main Street where Mary Flaherty will come tomorrow in mourning and the hope of finding a black blouse and skirt. It's falling on the Captain's only son in his worn Barbour jacket as he picks up sodden scraps and crisp packets dropped by schoolchildren and windblown all the way up the hill into his garden. It's raining on the Robertson's goldfish pond, where the five surviving fish are barely moving, biding low in the dark water. It's raining on the new estate where, if you place your ear on any interior wall you can hear what the neighbours think of you, and every flush of their toilet. It's filling up the broken end of a Buckfast bottle at the edge of the children's swing park, drumming on the roofs of the travellers' caravans beside the river, falling on the football field and the deer nibbling ferns on the golf course, falling on isolated cottages and small holdings, on fields of wintry stubble and black plastic bales.
When the rain showed signs of going off, Martine and Josie left the van, closing the door on her.
they said, making faces at her through the window,
you're too wee
. In the past she'd made faces back at them, but this time she didn't.
They were going to the golf course again to look for balls to sell. This was the best time of day, when everyone had gone home for tea. They had a torch and a long stick so that they could pick out the balls in the tangled bushes and the burn as the light faded. They didn't want her. She couldn't run fast enough if someone saw them and shouted.
As soon as they were out of sight behind the broken-down wall of bricks, she put on her rubber boots, shoving her arms into her jacket. The dogs paid no attention. With a careful look back to see that her mother, in Nan's van with the baby, wasn't watching, she followed the faint silvery dented tracks over the grass, the green frog faces on the fronts of her boots pushing ahead for her, so she could pretend she was three people, not one.
Away to the left, the cars on the dual carriageway were roaring faintly, their lights just visible, winking through the trees. She felt funny inside. She wasn't supposed to leave the field without telling. Mostly she was careful to be good, but this time she couldn't stop herself. The idea had got bigger and bigger. But it wasn't a naughty idea. All she wanted to do was watch them, and not tell them, not let them know she was watching.
It was hard to keep secrets from them. Anything she tried to hide in the van they found and messed with, but this was going to be a secret inside her head. They wouldn't be able to touch anything inside her head.
She pulled her hood over her head and kept her hands in her pockets to avoid scratches when she passed through the bramble bushes. There was nothing left now but rusty dying leaves and spikes. No warm berries. They'd picked them on sunny afternoons after school, eating them with ice cream from the cafÃ©. You had to look at them before you put them in your mouth, in case you swallowed a white worm. The worms would grow and grow in your stomach, Martine and Josie said, and eat all the way through to your bottom and come out in your poo. This had happened to one of her cousins. The twins had been in the van at the time and had seen the worms wriggling in the toilet pan.
At the edge of the golf course, a new wire fence kept people out, but she was small enough to go between the lowest strand of barbed wire and the ground, tucking her skirt close against her legs so it didn't get dirty. Not that she was small. She would be five soon. She was going to be beautiful, the beauty out of all the girls, Nan said, brushing her hair slowly each night, plaiting the long strands into one single plait while she ate toast in front of the TV. Nan had been a beauty herself. Don't mind those two, Nan told her, they're just jealous.
The twins were dark like their father. He liked them because they took after his side of the family, Nan said. She was her Mum's girl. Her thoughts faltered. Mum was too tired to do things. She didn't seem to like any of them any more.
Head down, she didn't see it until she walked into it. She jumped back, flailing. It wasn't a ghost though, only a big bit of plastic, caught in the darkening bushes. A big, torn, dirty sheet, not a ghost, not something out to get her. She pulled at it, tried to tear it free but it was too strong for her, too caught and tugged, and the water ran off it, cold up her sleeves.
She rubbed her hands on her skirt, but it wasn't the right kind of cloth for drying hands properly. Should she go back? There was very little noise. The sound of the cars had faded, the birds had finished their early evening chattering. But she was nearly at the burn. She knew where she was. With small careful steps she went on, arms folded. A few moments later there was a glimpse of pink, just visible, not far ahead. She stretched on her toes. The twins, their pink jackets, disappearing into the first of the birch trees â¦ She crouched down, in case they might look back.
It was marshy here. She could hear the water, a few yards away, swooshing loud against the long grasses. In the summer it was a good place, but there wouldn't be any tadpoles now, and the tall plants with the purple flowers were brown and slimy, with a funny smell that made her nose itchy.
The ground under her boots had filled up with water. She'd made two pools. Back and forwards she rocked for a moment or two, letting her froggy toes have a drink.
From here to the other side of the plank bridge it would be slippy. Then it was short grass with nothing to hide behind. If Martine and Josie saw her they'd chase her and pull her hair. You couldn't get away from two. One held your arms and the other pulled.
, she told the frogs on her toes.
There was a long white feather caught in the grass where the plank was wedged into the ground. She reached down. It was all smooth and clean, even at the pointy end.
ââHello. What have you found?''
She put the hand with the feather behind her back as the man came closer.
ââIt's all right, you can show me. Is it a feather?''
She shook her head, not looking him in the face.
ââI won't take it from you. It's yours. You found it, not me.''
Slowly she brought the feather round, and held it up, ready to pull away if he tried to snatch it from her.
ââThat's a beauty,'' he said. ââThat's from a black headed gull, I think. They like to live beside the sea, usually. But we're quite a long way from the sea, aren't we?''
His voice was funny. He was carrying a big, black umbrella, closed up. He stuck the sharp end of it into the grass and began twisting it round and round, slowly, as if it was a stick.
ââYou wouldn't take eggs though, would you? None of us should take eggs from a nest. You wouldn't do that.''
She shook her head.
ââBecause the mother bird would get upset, wouldn't she?''
He came closer, and squatted down, looking at the feather more closely.
ââCan I touch it?'' he said, ââI promise not to hurt it.''
Bing Crosby was singing in the hospice shop. Harriet, sixteen, only knew it was Bing Crosby because Mrs Robertson had told her. Mrs Robertson, who might be any age between fifty and seventy, as far as Harriet could tell, said he was much more handsome than that Robbie Williams and a better singer too. Not being much of a Robbie Williams fan, Harriet was quite happy to agree.
She was on her knees at the book and video shelves, arranging the new arrivals. It had been quiet all day, although they'd had the usual lonely hearts, the old biddies that came in all the time, the ones who liked to chat to June, the manager. Mrs Robertson was a volunteer, like her, and like Letty who had Down's but ââworked like a wee beaver'', according to June.
Mr Mackenzie had been in with a box of Cadbury's Heroes for them.
ââHe's getting frail,'' June murmured, when the door closed behind him. ââDid you hear what he said? His son invited him out for Christmas dinner, only he told him he'd have to pay for himself? Imagine. And him only losing his wife a few months ago. If I met that boy I'd tell him the time of day all right. He said he wasn't going.''
There was a sad little silence for a while, then June said she was going to do some ironing in the back shop. Letty followed. She was at her happiest when close to June. Mrs Robertson turned to Harriet, ââAre you all organised for Christmas, dear? I suppose it'll be your father's busiest time.''
Harriet nodded politely, still preoccupied with the injustice and sadness of Mr Mackenzie's life. Of life in general. And Letty, whose pale, flat hair was lovingly brushed each morning into a ponytail and tied with a pink ribbon. She was somewhere in her mid twenties; what would happen when her parents grew old?
She took up her pen and finished putting prices on the sticky labels for the new cards. The thoughtless cruelty of human beings continually troubled her. Sometimes Harriet felt she'd been born with thinner emotional skin than other people, with less protection against the things that hurt. She'd stopped eating breakfast in the kitchen because Dad insisted on hearing the news on Radio Four, which was always bad news or arguments and ruined the day before it began. She'd protested for a while. What was the point in knowing about every disaster, if you couldn't do anything?
But what could she have done for Mr Mackenzie?
Mrs Robertson was right. Her Dad was exhausted, and he even had a funeral on Christmas Eve on top of everything else. The tree was up and decorated, the duck was waiting in the fridge, and school was finished for two whole weeks, but with Mum thousands of miles away, there was none of the usual fun in the midst of the chaos. Kerr was home, which was something. She looked at her watch. Three o'clock and getting dark already.
She could hear Letty and June singing along with the CD. June was tanned all year round, thanks to her home sun-bed. She was wearing earrings today in the shape of Christmas trees that twinkled red and green, on and off, which was really naff, but kind of endearing at the same time.