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Authors: Janis Mackay

Wild Song

BOOK: Wild Song
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To my mother, Mary Mackay
who encouraged me to sing, dance and walk on the
Wild side.


And to the Secret Readers of George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh:
Mrs Elaine Clarke, English teacher, and her pupils;
Grace Dobson, Freya Groves, Paul Ferguson,
Jeremy Saville, Rory Tait and Ayesha Qasim.
For reading and critiquing the first draft of
Wild Song

Thank You.

His whole body jerks like he’s been kicked awake. But he isn’t awake, he’s dreaming. He’s back in the sea. It’s always the sea. A thick grey wall of water looms up. It’s moving towards him, towering over him. Now it’s falling on him. Another rears, then another – great crashing waves.

Until the seventh giant wave changes shape. It’s not a grey wall now but a boat, tossed like a toy. The boat has gone, swallowed into the sea. Hands stretch up through the churning water. Fingers reach, grasp, then vanish. Then the hands are gone. So is the sea.

The pounding is his heart. His eyes stare wildly up at the ceiling. It is the ceiling, not the cruel sky. He’s in a bed, not a boat. It’s a dream, that’s all it is – a bad dream, he tells himself over and over, till the room stops rocking.

Go back to sleep, Niilo. You are not going to drown.

* * *

So, I’m not a great sleeper. And it’s getting worse. I’m scared to fall asleep in case the waves roll over me and the bed turns into a boat. To fight the nightmares I lie on the hard floor. I don’t bother about blankets. It’s uncomfortable, cold, but that way I stay awake for hours. I lie with my eyes closed, listening to the sounds of the night. I like how the trams rattle, ring their bell, then fade away. I hear barking dogs, the squeal of car tyres, the wail of far-off sirens. I lie on the floor in the night and invent my own world. I call it The Capsule. In it I make the sirens howling wolves, barking dogs become growling bears, the rattles of trams are pounding hooves of reindeer. And I’m far from Helsinki – I’m running with mighty elk in dark forests …

But sleep is a hunter. It catches me. Because next thing Mum is crying over me, and holding me. ‘Niilo, oh, Niilo,’ she sobs.

She tries to slip a pillow under my head but I push her away. The dream has fled and I’m wide awake. I bark at her like a dog.

‘Don’t,’ she whines.

I grab whatever is closest – a book – and fling it at the wall. She screams and shields her face, but I wasn’t aiming for her. The early morning light catches her eyes and I see she’s scared of me. She backs away, but doesn’t leave like I want her to. She stands at the door, shaking.

‘This can’t go on,’ she says. Her voice is shaking now. I’m ready to punch my fist on the floor when she cries,
‘Stop it!’ There’s something different in her voice. The shaking has gone. She doesn’t look scared, she looks guilty. She lifts her hands up, like she’s innocent. ‘Don’t blame me, Niilo. I did my best.’ She’s got tears in her eyes. ‘I thought this was the way to manage. I don’t know what else to do.’

But she still doesn’t leave.

So I laugh. I want to tell her to take a chill pill. Relax. Just eight more months, then she’ll never have to set eyes on the problem son any more. Because as soon as I hit fourteen, I’m out of here.
. Off I go! World get ready, cos here I come.

Except I don’t do long sentences. ‘Get out,’ is all I say.

But she doesn’t. It’s like she is trying to tell me something but can’t get the words out. ‘Niilo?’ I don’t look at her. I’m looking for the remote control. Music. That’s what I need. ‘You do have to go to school,’ she says. ‘It’s the law.’ She’s hovering at my bedroom door, fumbling with the handle but not turning it. ‘There are … schools, Niilo. Special places that can help you.’

I find the remote and flick on the music. Mum is chattering on, but I turn the music up so loud it’s thumping off the walls, and her mouth is like a fish, opening and closing with no sound coming out. She shakes her head and goes.

Then I sleep. The dreams don’t find me in the day. I sleep till two. An hour later I’m down at the market. It’s only April, still cold, but that doesn’t stop the tourists.
There’s a crowd of them swarming around the reindeer furs – something sick to me about a pile of skin and fur for sale. ‘A bargain at one hundred and fifty euros,’ the man at the stall is screeching. ‘Take a piece of genuine Finland home for only one hundred and fifty euros.’

There’s a woman stroking the dead deer. I slink in behind her, silent as a hunter. And there it is, right under my nose: the woman’s bag, open for business. I spy the purse inside, black leather and fat. The crowd are all gaping at the dead reindeer. I dip my hand in. ‘It is very beautiful,’ the woman says, practically purring. ‘We do not have such creatures in Japan.’

I linger in that bag a second too long. My fingers brush the soft leather, I unclip the clasp, pull out a wad of notes, then all hell breaks out. ‘It’s him!’ somebody shouts. The woman screams and spins round but she’s too late – her cash is deep in my pocket. She tries to whack me with her bag and I duck. ‘Catch him!’ the man at the stall shouts. ‘Catch the thief!’

I take off, zipping through the crowds like an acrobat. Zigzag slalom-style always confuses people. I feel somebody’s hand pull at my jacket. I wriggle and squirm free. I hear my jacket rip. I dive into a group of kids, out on some trip.

‘Grab him!’ someone shouts. ‘Him with the long black hair. Get him!’

Forget slalom. I bolt through the crowds, knocking kids and old ladies  aside. A blurred sea of shocked faces rushes
past. I bang into a stall of woollen hats. They go flying. A woman swears. Someone tries to snatch at my chain belt but I side-skip, like a boxer. There’s something thrilling about being chased. Everyone is yelling and grabbing at me but I’m fast. Slippery like oil. I duck again, then dart over the road, in front of a bus. The driver blasts the horn and slams on the brakes but I’m safely on the other side, feeling like I just crossed the river rapids.

All my pursuers are standing shaking their fists – waiting for the signal to cross the road. I speed up a side street away from the market.

Two minutes later I’m on the metro, heading home with one hundred and thirty-five euros in my pocket. I sit back and try and relax, but there’s a river of sweat running down my back and my heart is pounding like a drum. The metro clatters under Helsinki.

That was close. Too close.

I slip into my room and stash the cash in a lunch box under my bed. I’m starving. I could spend some euros on takeaway pizza but I’m saving up for the big adventure. So I raid the fridge instead.

I cram cheese into my mouth so fast I can’t taste it, but Mum and Dad and Tuomas, my little brother, are all sitting there, at the kitchen table. They’re staring at me so weirdly I can hardly swallow the stuff. Something is up. Dad is eyeing me coldly and Mum keeps running her fingers through her hair. It was always tense in this house, but now it’s really bad. Even Tuomas, who is usually a chatterbox, doesn’t say anything. There’s an atmosphere and I don’t know why, but it’s making me uneasy.

Dad isn’t all quiet like he used to be. He’s holding Mum’s hand and she’s doing her shaking thing again. ‘Do you see what you are doing to your mother?’ he says, trying not to shout. ‘You are making her ill.’ He’s patting her hair. ‘You have no respect for us.’ He’s working hard to keep
his voice steady. ‘Your little brother looks up to you.’ Dad’s losing it now. He’s raising his voice. I spit out the cheese. ‘You don’t even look at him. Living with you is like living with a monster. This can’t go on, Niilo. We can do no more.’

I laugh and grab a can of Coke from the fridge.

‘I am warning you, Niilo. This can’t go on.’

I’m feeling scared and I don’t know why. I growl and stomp into my room.

That’s where I am, two days later, lying on the carpet listening to CrashMetal turned up as loud as it will go, the bass thudding right through my bones. I don’t make it to the end of the song. The doorbell goes. That’s unusual, so I notice it – even with the thrashing music I can hear it buzz. I sit up and I’ve got this cold feeling. For no reason I suddenly feel shivery. Next thing, I can hear Mum crying out. Something is wrong.

I grab the remote and turn the music down. Now I can hear the voices of my parents. Urgent, hushed voices. Then the buzz of the doorbell again, more insistent this time. I jump to my feet, like I have to be ready, and I hear the front door being opened. Muffled voices. High and low voices. Then the hurried sound of Mum’s footsteps. Something is up.

Next thing, my bedroom door flies open and there’s Mum, standing in the doorway, her hair dishevelled. Black streaked mascara stains her face. ‘I’m sorry,’ she sobs. She tries to hug me but I push her away, my heart pounding
fast. I can hear rapid voices coming from the hallway and I feel a panic grip at my gut. I dive under the bed and grab at my stash of cash. ‘I’m sorry, Niilo,’ Mum is saying over and over, ‘but I had to.’

Sorry for what? Had to what? The entire contents of my lunch box spills over the floor and I clutch at the notes and stuff them up my sleeve. I’m only thirteen. This isn’t the plan. Well, too bad. Something tells me it’s time to split. Now!

I push back the bed and bolt out of the room. Mum runs after me, still crying – sorry – sorry. A slow-motion film comes on in my head.

Making. Everything. Technicolor.

Take for ever.

Dad is standing in the doorway of the study, looking down at the ground. He won’t make eye contact. There’s a large black suitcase by the front door. Beside it are two men in dark clothes. Tall men. Square jaws. Serious expressions. Behind them, a fist mark on the pale yellow wall.
fist mark. From some outburst – I try to remember which one. Behind me Mum is still sobbing, ‘I’m sorry.’ Over and over. ‘I’m

I stare at the men. At first I think they are police, as if I always knew they’d catch up with me. It feels like I’ve always been waiting for this moment – that it was always coming – though I don’t care as much as I thought I would. But they don’t look like police.

‘We gave you everything,’ Mum is crying. She’s trying
to grab me by the arm. ‘This is a chance to start over, Niilo. They said it was better not to tell you, until the day. It’s for your own good. It’s a nice place you are going to. A special school. They will help you. Don’t think badly of me. And it’s not for ever.’

‘Not for ever, Niilo,’ Dad echoes, like a puppet. It’s like the chorus of a song.
Not for ever, Niilo

‘Hi, Niilo. I’m Sam,’ one of the men says, looking straight at me. His voice is strong, deep, his gaze steady. He nods to the side. ‘This is Vilho.’

Who are these men if they are not police? Why are they coming towards me? I push my mum aside and lash out at the wall. And it hits me in a flash: the black suitcase is for
– I am being taken away. I dive for the door but a strong hand wraps fast around my arm. I kick the suitcase over, but these men are strong. They’ve done this kind of thing before. Doesn’t mean I don’t fight, and wriggle and yell like hell.

But in three minutes flat I’m gone from the house. And so are the laces off my trainers. And they find the secret pocket, and in it my knife, and the cigarettes and lighter. As they escort me into the car the cash falls out of my sleeve. The one called Sam scoops up the notes and runs back to the house while Vilho holds my arm. I watch from the car window, watch Sam hand over the money to Dad, watch Dad take the money as he stands on the doorstep looking totally bewildered. Then Dad is waving at me, the wad of cash in his hand. I glare at him, then look away.

Sam drives. Vilho sits in the back next to me. None of this feels real – it’s like I’m in a film. I can feel tears stinging my eyes. My teeth are chattering. I can’t stop them, but there’s something thrilling about the speed of it all too. The car is purring through the leafy neighbourhood, then out onto the main road into central Helsinki. Sam drives faster out on the highway.

‘Your mother couldn’t cope any more,’ Vilho says. ‘You are lucky though, Niilo. You’re going to the Wild School. We don’t always do it this way, kidnap-style, but your mum thought you’d run away if you knew. Sorry for the hasty exit.’

Sam laughs and winks at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘It’s not a bad place we’re taking you to. Relax, buddy, it’s going to be fine.’

I imagine wild animals, lions and tigers, brown bears and herds of stampeding buffalo.

‘It’s on an island,’ Sam says as the car approaches the harbour. The market stalls by the harbour are in full swing and I’m picturing reindeer skins. I’m trying not to think about the sea. Ahead there is a small ferryboat with its ramp down. The car heads straight for it.

I’m starting to seriously panic. There are a lot of things I don’t like, but the sea is the main one. I bite my lip, hard, as the car nears the ferry. I can taste blood.

‘The Wild School has its very own island. No expense spared,’ Sam says. ‘For the bad boy, eh?’ He revs the engine as the car rolls onto the ramp.

The metal structure clatters with the weight of the car and I think I might wet myself. I can’t believe this is happening. I clamp my eyes tight shut – but I’ve got to see what’s going on, so I have to open them again. And it’s only the ferryman plus Sam, Vilho and me on the boat. The black car is the only car rolling over the ramp.

Once we’re in the belly of the boat Sam turns off the engine. The car sways. We stay inside. ‘We’ll sit in the car,’ he says. ‘It’s a pretty short journey.’ The ferry clunks as the ramp comes up. Then it’s off.

The car lurches from side to side. There are still chunks of ice in the sea, and the boat breaks it up, bumping, growling. I clutch at the car seat and panic rises in my throat, like puke.

‘Bumpy ride,’ Sam calls out. ‘Hang on and keep breathing.’ I’m groaning, I can’t help it. ‘Give him a bag, Vilho, for God’s sake,’ Sam shouts.

But it is too late for any bag. I throw up over Vilho’s black trousers.

‘Jesus,’ he cries, edging away. ‘Get him out of the car.’

Next thing, I’m clinging onto the rails of the ferryboat, groaning and kicking at the lifebuoy. Again and again I throw up. Vomit spins into the sea spray as Helsinki lurches and dips behind us and ice splits and crunches below. Vilho is at my back, clutching at my hoodie, just in case I’m about to hurl myself overboard. Through the tears and sick and terror I can see a small island grow bigger.

Sam staggers across the deck with a towel. ‘Wipe yourself clean,’ he shouts. ‘We’re almost there.’

When we arrive at the island the car rolls off the ramp and clatters up a dirt track that doesn’t look made for cars. After a couple of minutes and hundreds of pine trees, the car stops and the two men – one on either side – escort me out of the car. If I didn’t feel so queasy I might have felt like a celebrity.

‘We walk this last bit,’ Vilho says, groaning. He sounds pretty ill too.

My knees keep buckling. Sam and Vilho hold me up. I’m vaguely aware of a blur of trees. And someone shouting in the distance. I see some hens. I hear a dog bark. I see a wooden bench. We stop in front of the bench.

‘Look what it says on it,’ Sam says. ‘
Welcome to the Wild School
.’ Moaning, I sink onto the bench. We all do. ‘Make the most of it here,’ Sam says. Then he nudges me and smiles. ‘Wild child!’

‘Yeah, blooming wild, right enough,’ Vilho says.

I don’t look at him, but can see the stain of puke over his trousers. The smell makes me feel sick all over again. Groaning, I lift my head. In front of us, between a grove of pine trees, is a large red-brick building. Is that
? The Wild School? It doesn’t look wild!

‘You get to do all kinds of adventurous stuff here,’ Sam says.

But I’m already determined to make nothing of it. I frown, like I am not interested in the large building and
adventurous stuff. But inside me a small victory is pulsing away. Because I crossed the sea. And survived.

‘It’s all right for you,’ Vilho says. ‘You get to stay here. We’ve got to turn round and go back! Could you not have chosen a better day?’

I look at him. I haven’t spoken up till now. I cough. I can feel the sick stick in my throat. I cough again, then say three husky words. ‘I didn’t choose.’

After that, I don’t speak for a long time.

BOOK: Wild Song
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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