He came down the ramp, with everyone else from the cavern behind him, the burning logs held high to light up the way. When he saw the hole where the wall had been, he stopped and stared.
“Come on,” Lorn said impatiently. “Bring the light through. Everyone needs to see what's happened.”
Perdew clambered over the pile of earth and stones, and all the others crowded up to the hole, peering through it to see what his makeshift torches would show them. He turned around and stood beside Lorn, with the torches lifted high.
The tunnel went away from him in both directions, curving into the darkness. It looked exactly as Lorn knew it would. Even and deliberate. Not formed by accident, but dug on purpose.
By something much bigger than they were.
For a second, there was silence. Then Tina started to scream.
“It's going to come through and eat us!”
How DID HE DO IT? How DID ROBERT MAKE A BRAID with twelve strands?
All of a sudden, Tom was obsessed with braiding. Everywhere he went, he carried a little hank of stringâtwelve pieces, knotted together at one endâand his fingers wouldn't leave it alone. Whenever he was on his own he pulled it out and started fidgeting with it again, twisting the strands around and around and in and out. Trying first one pattern and then another. Looping and twining and turning until the whole thing was such a mess that he pushed it back into his pocket in disgust.
It was a complete waste of time.
But Robert had figured out how to do it. He wouldn't have been able to learn from a diagram or any kind of written instructions. He must have found out by accident.
He must have.
Tom knew it would only take a few minutes on the Inter-net to find the pattern he needed. But he didn't want to do it like that. He wanted to figure it out for himself, the way Robert must have done.
It was important to keep his braiding a secret, of course, until he'd worked out how to do it. But it wasn't easy to hide it. Suddenly, wherever he went, Robert seemed to be around. At school, he was never out of earshot. It was impossible to sneak off on his own.
That didn't look odd to anyone else, because people were used to seeing them together, but Tom knew he was being watched. Once, when they were on their own, he rounded on Robert, yelling angrily.
“Get off my back! You're driving me crazy!”
Robert just shrugged. “I thought you might want to talk, that's all.”
“About what? Your precious fairy story?” Tom glared and stamped off.
But the next time he turned aroundâthere was Robert. Chatting away to Joe, as if he hadn't noticed that Tom was there.
It wasn't always Robert. Sometimes it was Emma who turned up, especially in the park. Three or four times she appeared out of nowhere when Tom was walking Helga early in the morning. He began to feel as if she could read his mind.
It came to a head one Friday morning. As he and Helga went in through the park gates, Emma appeared, as if by magic, coming down the path toward him.
“Why don't you leave me alone?” he muttered.
Emma shrugged and fell into step beside him. “It's a public park.”
“Well, go and infest another part of it.” Tom started to walk faster, trying to get rid of her, and Helga gave a harsh, low-pitched bark that turned into a growl. He bent down and let her off the leash.
“I hope you're not going to send her into the woods,” Emma said.
That was the last straw. Tom stopped dead and glared at her. “It's none of your business where we go. I won't meddle with your silly little games, but I'm not going to let them get in my way.
“Lookâ” Emma frowned. “Try and see it from our point of view. Robert made a bad mistake, telling you about... what happened to him. And now we don't know what to do. But we've got to protect the people in the cavern.”
any people!” Tom grabbed her arms and turned her around to face the woods. Reaching over her shoulder, he jabbed his finger toward the trees. “Look, Emma. That's an ordinary little woods at the end of the park. With an ordinary hedge in front of it.” His breath billowed past the side of her head, making clouds in the chilly air. “The cavern and the little people and all those things are just fantasy.”
“I wish they were,” Emma said ruefully.
Give up, Tom thought. Just give up. It was like banging his head against a brick wall. He stepped back and took out his whistle to signal Helga.
As he put it to his lips, he saw a movement beyond her. There was a flutter of white, and a figure came out of the woods, pushing an empty shopping bag into its pocket. So Robert was still taking food parcels to the fairies, was he?
Tom blew his whistle quickly. He wanted to get out of there before Robert saw him. To his relief, Helga turned and started back right away. The moment she reached him, he bent down and clipped on her leash. She would have to make do with a walk around the streets.
When he straightened up, he saw that Emma had already gone. She was marching across the grass to join Robertâ with a neat, square plait hanging down her back. It was thick and shiny and perfectly made, the most beautiful piece of braiding Tom had ever seen.
And it felt like a slap in the face.
WHEN HE REACHED HOME, HIS MOTHER WAS SITTING blearily over her breakfast coffee. Her long hair was hanging over her shoulder in an ordinary three-strand braid. She always slept with it like that.
He hadn't meant to tell her anything about what was going on, but the words came by themselves. Abrupt and aggressive,
“All girls can braid, can't they? It's no big deal.”
“What?” His mother blinked up at him. “What's up, Tom?”
“Why do you always do your hair like that? Could you do a different kind of braid if you wanted to? How about one with twelve strands?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
Tom's heart thudded. Pulling the string out of his pocket, he untangled it quickly and pushed it at her. “Show me how you do it.”
She looked startled, but she took the string and began to weave it slowly and clumsily. It was no use at all. She was making something like a fat, untidy, three-strand braid. Using exactly the same method.
“Is that the only way you can do it?” he said impatiently.
“If it's not good enough, you'd better do it yourself.” His mother pushed the string back at him and stood up, looking annoyed. “I need to get ready for work.” She drained her coffee and disappeared upstairs.
Tom was left on his own, with Helga whining for a drink. He filled her water bowl and then stood beside it, unraveling his mother's sloppy, irregular braid. He was so disappointed that he wanted to scream.
He was desperate to see a proper twelve-strand braid. Not made by Robert. Not in Emma's hair. There had to be one somewhere.
WHEN IT FINALLY TURNED UP, HE ALMOST MISSED IT.
He was mooching around town on his own, on Saturday afternoon. He'd started out with Joe and Catesby, but they'd stopped in the music shop to chat up some girls (one of them with a dull, little three-strand braid and the others with no braids at all). After a few moments, Tom had drifted off and left them to it. He was too restless to stand still for long.
He slouched to the square in the middle of town and worked his way along the shops, peering in the windows and watching the customers. One shop had a couple of braided belts (five and six strands, plaited flat) in the window and another had a rack of hair ornaments made of braided ribbon (only four strands). That was it. There was nothing else. Nothing remotely like what he was searching for. But he figured there must be loads of them around. If Robbo could do it, it had to be easy to make them. All he had to do was find one....
It was almost lunchtime when he saw the boy with the sports bag. He was sitting on the bench by the fountain, in the middle of the main square, with his fat knees spread wide apart. Normally, Tom would have gone by without a second look, but he'd just bought himself a Coke, and he wanted to sit by the fountain to drink it.
But the boy had gotten there first.
He was only about eleven or twelve, with a pale, bloated face and a belly that hung over the top of his trousers. There should have been room for two more people on the bench, but he'd planted himself right in the middle, with his sports bag on one side and a row of little white paper bags on the other. The paper bags were full of candies, and he was eating his way steadily through them.
went his fingers, first into one bag and then into another. He wasn't taking one sweet at a time. He was gathering them in handfuls and cramming them into his mouth, so fast that he barely had time to chew. Dip,
He didn't even seem to be enjoying them. His eyes stared into the distance, and he shoved the candy into his mouth without looking. Without even finishing the previous mouthful.
went his hand, into the bags and then straight up to his mouth. And his mouth opened automatically, just wide enough to let him push them in. Then it clamped shut again and he went on chewing.
It made Tom feel sick. He was about to walk away when the boy suddenly screwed all the paper bags together and dropped them under the seat. Then he heaved himself off the bench, unzipped his sports bag, and took out a couple of bills. With the money in one hand and the sports bag slung over his shoulder, he lumbered across the squareâheading straight for the nearest sweet shop.
He was going to buy
candy? Tom was so astounded that he turned around to watch. And there was no doubt about it. The boy pushed the shop door open, with his pudgy hand on the door and his sports bag hanging against his back.
And on the sports bag, hanging down from the zipper toggle, was a neat little blue braid.
Not a big braid. Nothing showy. Tom wouldn't even have noticed it if he hadn't been watching out for things like that. It was just a little square plait made of blue woolen threads, with a few flecks of brown twisted through it, appearing and disappearing at odd intervals. There was nothing remotely special about it.
But it looked like a twelve-strand braid.
A SECOND, Tom COULDN'T BELIEVE IT WAS ACTUALLY there. Was he imagining it? Was he so obsessed that his poor, exhausted brain had started conjuring up hallucinations? He blinked and looked again.
The braid was still there. So it was real. And it was exactly the right shape, even though it wasn't long and golden orange. Neat and tight and square. He just had time to imagine how the pattern would feel under his fingers. Then the boy and the bag and the braid all disappeared into the sweet shop.
He wanted to shout triumphantly.
Got you, Robbo! There's nothing special about that braid of yours. Any old sausage-fingered kid can make one like it!
That would make Robert think, all right. And it would fix Emma, too. He could hardly wait to tell her. The braid was just as ordinary as the little woods in the park. Once she knew thatâonce she could see that he knewâshe'd have to stop playing games with Robert. And start looking after him.
But the imaginary scene in his head started going wrong. Because he knew what Emma would say. He could almost hear her superior, sarcastic voice. So
you found a twelve-strand braid, did you? Are you sure it wasn't nine? Or ten? Did you count the strands?
And, of course, he hadn't counted them. He couldn't be sure there really were twelve. And even if he was sure, that wouldn't be good enough once he was face-to-face with Emma. He had to double-check. To get a better look.
He stayed on the bench, waiting for the boy to come out of the sweet shop. Determined to track him all the way home if he had to.
But that wasn't necessary. Because when the boy came out of the shop, he headed straight back to the bench and sat down in exactly the same place as before. He had three more paper bags in his hand, and he put them down on the bench, on his left-hand side, exactly where the other bags had been.
Then he slipped the sports bag off his shoulder and turned to put it on the other side. But there wasn't room, because Tom was sitting there.
If their eyes had met, even for a second, things would have been different. Tom was ready to give him a smile. He was ready to slide to the end of the bench to make room for the bag. He would have done anything that gave him a chance to talk and ask a few questions about the braid.
But the boy glanced away, avoiding him. He just dropped his sports bag onto the ground, half of it in front of his own feet and half in front of Tom's. Then he turned to the sweets and started stuffing them into his mouth.
The braid was there, right next to Tom's feet, hanging down from the zipper toggle. He could hardly breathe. It was close enough to touch.
Don't move too fast. Don't blow it.
As casually as he could, he bent over and started retying one of his shoelaces.
As soon as he bent down, the boy's head whipped around. The pale eyes peered suspiciously.
“Hi.” Tom looked up, straight at him. “You OK?”
He said it in the friendliest voice he could and grinned cheerfully. But the boy didn't respond. For a second he just stared, obviously startled at being spoken to. Then he glowered and turned his back ostentatiously, shielding the sweets with his body.
If you're going to be like that, I'll do it another way.
As the fat hand reached into the paper bags, Tom took his chance. His fingers flew to the zipper toggle, and he struggled with the knot, trying to untie the little braid.
But he couldn't. The knot was pulled tight, and the braiding made it almost impossible to pull it apart.