Books About Women

tracybeaker

This might all just be in my head — in which case please forgive me — but it’s been irking me as of late.

Undoubtedly, women face difficulties in the world of publishing in comparison to men. This, unfortunately, isn’t much different from other industries; but, with a more limited commodity of women’s literature, you might imagine that we’d at least cherish it a bit more. You might think that female voices would be promoted more vigorously, and would be the subject of more critical attention. Maybe I’m too much of an idealist.

We have the Bailey’s prize, and we have Virago, but there appears to be an unspoken point in our culture concerning women in the written world: that books about women are solely for women. That’s worrying.

I suppose this can be linked to other, more familiar, cultural foibles — for example, the persisting idea that certain toys must be for certain genders. All right, it might be true that more boys prefer trains than girls (for whatever reason), but that by no means suggests that girls cannot like trains. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Trains are awesome. Yet a similar trend also seems to exist in literature. I remember that when I was younger I’d often borrow (or ‘temporarily steal’, if you insist) my sister’s Jacqueline Wilson books. I thought the illustrations by Nick Wossname were brilliant, and the books were engaging and funny. I enjoyed strong, free-thinking characters like Tracy Beaker, who was more rebellious and street-smart than I ever was — though the stories still had a few poignant moments.

But I borrowed these books to my sister’s derision. Apparently the entire bibliography of Jacqueline Wilson is For Girls. Why? Even if we give in to all stereotypes, this still doesn’t make sense — it’s not as if Tracy Beaker is a boyfriend-seeking shopaholic. In many ways she’s more ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’, a modern-day George from the Famous Five. It must, therefore, be the fact that Tracy Beaker has a vagina, and so does her author. A vagina in the vicinity immediately labels a book as For Girls, and woe betide any boy to break that aura.

I realise I’m ranting a little overzealously on the Jacqueline Wilson point, but it’s something I’ve experienced recently, too — in reading Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’, several people suggested that I should have to be a woman to have any interest in it. Sure, the book will most appeal to women, but that shouldn’t mean that men should be excluded. That wouldn’t be good.

Women account for [just over] 50% of the world — it was dangerous to ever introduce any notion of divisiveness, and it’s dangerous to reinforce those beliefs. If books about women, or by women, are solely For Girls, then this means that men are missing a significant perspective on the world. Literature is a great way, perhaps the best, to understand the experiences of someone else, and it seems absurd to exclude the incredibly important human voice. After all, if the >50% statistic wasn’t enough, everyone in the world has important women who are close to them: mothers, friends, and partners. Why ignore their voices because a book isn’t ‘manly’ enough?

It’s easy to rant, and I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir with most of this; blame is a little more difficult to place. We can put it all on a male-centred culture, but that isn’t necessarily productive. We can put it on publishing companies, who still mark a clear gender divide in their cover designs and printing (a divide that simply no longer exists in 21st century society), but business is business, and they ultimately cater to the consumer. So that is where the blame, I suppose, must be laid: on us. We continue to pointlessly reinforce the idea that, somehow, some books are for girls and some books are for boys. So I encourage you to focus more on supporting women’s literature, and to contribute to the start of a publishing snowball. It’s stupid. We can fix it. Let’s do it.

‘British Values’

BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVES

We live in a strange world. It’s been brewing for a while, but it has only been in the past few weeks that the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal has become a national talking-point (and, before we continue, let me say how dull a name ‘Trojan Horse’ is for a secret plot; not exactly a great codename, is it?). If the allegations of the Department for Education, among others, are to be believed, then there has been a malignant nurturing of Islamic extremism in some Birmingham schools, with some claiming that it has been going on for at least twenty years. I have a very limited knowledge of the circumstances, but it seems odd that extremism could exist on such a grand scale, undiscovered, beginning at a time when there was zero motive for any Islamic extremists to target British schools — we hadn’t lackadaisically invaded and/or bombed Arab countries back then. But this isn’t even what I want to talk about today. Obviously, if there really is an extremist movement in certain schools, it should be curtailed. My interest is in the response by the DfE, in particular Michael Gove, and how that suggests a worrying change in our political climate. Yes, this is going to be one of those posts.

Gove’s response to the alleged extremism, amidst a lot of in-fighting and guilt-shifting as you’d expect from any cabinet, was to not only announce the possibility Ofsted inspections without prior warning — which, let’s be honest, should probably be standard  — but also to tunnel in on a promotion of ‘British values’. Of course, being a man with a penchant for hot air and word-vomit, he neglected to define what these ‘values’ actually are.

Thankfully, Twitter stepped in:

“When the government’s cuts directly cause homelessness to rise by 75% we put spikes on concrete to deal with the consequences

Hating single mums whilst having the the boys will be boys attitude.”

And, naturally, the hilarious backlash from “@Nationalist_UK”:

“Liberal retards on the tag, you can move to continental Europe you know. Would like to forcibly deport you to Sweden.”

To his credit, I do fancy a holiday in Sweden.

I only just picked those out, actually, and the presence of nationalism is a lovely segue into what I wanted to talk about — that dangerous political movement, seemingly swelling up more than ever these days all over the world.

I enjoy being British. I enjoy the irreverent-yet-self-effacing style of humour that we’ve cultivated for decades. I enjoy our obsession with pouring hot water on to leaves and drinking the resulting, brown, leaf-water. I even enjoy our crazy, but ultimately harmless, traditions, such as that a member of Parliament needs to be kept hostage during the Queen’s Speech to ensure the monarch’s safe return. I enjoy the rich history that we command, though oddly not so much the history that we’ve appropriated from the rest of the world through slavery and war, and I even enjoy our traditional failure to win the World Cup or Eurovision or whatever else.

But I would hesitate to call myself a patriot — I suppose, at a push, I would, but it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 10 (or even top 20) characteristics of how I define myself. What’s more, I think there is a lurking danger in anyone who does, immediately, define themselves as a patriot. And there are many such people.

Because, let’s face it, what is British? There is nothing of note that differentiates the people of Britain from the people of Romania or Thailand or Venezuela. We’re all human. What makes us ‘British’ is a series of chance events that have led us to invent this culture, and those events have frequently been painful. We are, ultimately, a liberal society as a result of the socially repressive Victorian era and the privation of liberty by our own hands during the slave trade. We have a parliament because hundreds of people died for it in 1216 and the 1640s and during several other periods in history. Importantly, I didn’t die for any of that. Nor did you, reader, unless you’re a time-travelling millennigenarian. So, yes, I am certainly fortunate to be British. But I do not have the right to be proud to be British. I am not proud to be a D-Day veteran because I buy some medals on eBay, but I am fortunate to live in a society that D-Day, in part, made possible.

But Nationalism creates a dangerous mix of the two. To the Nationalist, you must be proud to be British or you are some kind of disgrace (or a “liberal retard”, hah). You must recognise the innumerable differences between the Briton and the Romanian and the Thai and the Venezuelan. You must believe that the history of your country grants you a right to impose your culture on others because it is the only ‘correct’ culture. You must believe, at the root of it all, that you are better.

This is what Gove is reaching out to with his appeal to ‘British values’. He is putting out his tendrils to nationalist groups, like the BNP and — to a lesser extent, though the still self-avowedly nationalist — UKIP, and almost sharing some strange in-joke against ethnic minorities.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that a state should stand for nothing, or that we should allow extremism to continue; in fact, I’d like to argue for the exact opposite. The British state should stand for as much as possible, but only insofar as it stands for the views of the people. Yes — let us be moderate and critical thinkers. Yes — let us have free speech and gender equality. Yes — let us have emancipation regardless of sexuality. But to say that these are distinctly ‘British’ values implies that we are somehow morally superior to anyone else. These are human values, and we should treat them as such. In Britain, we should not seek to be as ‘British’ as possible, but instead to be as human as we can. Let’s act together in making the world a better place, doing our best to remove extremism and other evils from the world, but not to be a benchmark ourselves. Let’s strive to be human.

Dustshine – Chapter 1

1

She was everything to me. Perhaps not quite everything, but most things. There had been days, I remember, during which I could think of little else, such was her effect on me. She obsessed my thoughts so intensely that it was as if she were the thoughts themselves, and perhaps she was. But I knew that I could never be sure about her, and neither could she. It was a delicate relationship at the best of times, and at the worst of times – well, that’s why she’s no longer my everything. It had always been as if we were crossing rock pools together, holding each other in the spray and the slips, but otherwise only caring about our own footing. We’d never made it anywhere near the beach during our time together. But you know what I mean, don’t you? If only I could flesh these bones; maybe then you’d understand what I mean. My times there, with her, were deeper than an iris, but they were as thin as an embrace. Had her irises been only fading fires, her embraces only whispers on the wind? I could not know. She was all I had known, but all I knew had not been enough to know her. Yes! To know her was to know myself, wasn’t it? Or to know her was to know more than myself, and that‘s why I can never know her. But we don’t need knowledge, do we? Knowledge makes us sad because it involves truth, and truth is something that everyone hates at one time or another. She helped me to hate truth, but now the truth is all I have left.

***

Grey was the window, and grey was the rain. The windowsill extended just far enough that I could sit up on it, hugging my knees and leaning my head on the cold pane.  It was comfortable enough, provided you didn’t touch the dirt on the frame and the mould on the sill. I’d claimed that spot when I’d first arrived at the house, and – even though it didn’t seem to have been designed as a chair – they never minded me sitting there. Most importantly, it was the only truly private place in the house. The window, for a reason I never guessed nor was told, jutted out further than the rest of the house and would be entirely secluded by opening the door to the kitchen. This left the rest of the room in a perpetual twilight, even during the height of the day, but they didn’t seem to mind.

So I would lean against the window, even with its dirt and its dampness, and I’d stare out into the rain across the fields. It rained a lot where I lived then, the sky a blanket of grey draped across a quilt of farmland. But I didn’t mind and neither did they – the fields became swamps of mud, but the trees that saluted us in the distance grew to an ever more vivid green. I used to sit on the sill and try to capture that ‘blank everything’ for years, though I’m not sure I ever succeeded. My mind flowed with colours – colours like the emerald trees, not the sewage brown earth. And it was for this reason that I embraced any opportunity to walk down to the forest and leap between the trees, running my fingers through pine needles and listening to the gentle, wooden percussion of the drizzle. At first I was never allowed to go alone – Mister had been entrusted me on the grounds that he would look after me at all times. In the beginning, being young, I was frustrated that I wasn’t thought of as Big and wasn’t allowed to enjoy the forest by myself. As the years passed, though, I grew to enjoy his company more and more. Even by the age of sixteen, when surely no one could argue I wasn’t Big, I still humoured the old man. I don’t think I could have enjoyed the forest without him.

You might be thinking that Mister was my valet, or something like that, but he wasn’t – at least not in the literal sense. Mister was my great-uncle, a relation so far off and so unknown that it had been perfect for my situation. After my parents had done what they did, and in such a way, it was decided. I later learned that it had already been decided for a long time, and the rest of the family was only waiting for a discreet opportunity. I did miss my parents then, and I think I miss them more now that I can think more clearly and calmly. But I missed them like I might have missed a teddy bear, even a teddy bear with teeth and an insatiable appetite. But I had never enjoyed thinking of them or of that. Let that be the end of it.

***

Grey was the window, and grey was the rain, as I remember it. I leaned my head against the window of the van, taking a strange enjoyment in the juddering of my head every time we hit a bump. We hit a lot of bumps on roads like these; they were long and long-forgotten roads, cracked all over. I was a silly child. I suppose I still am.

For hours, I’d been playing games with the raindrops, seeing which one would reach the bottom first, though I wouldn’t glory in victory. As soon as the one I was following joined the little pool of droplets in the dip of the frame, I’d move to another and watch that slide down. I always used to wonder why they didn’t just push themselves off and fall; falling would be a lot quicker. You’d get to the bottom a lot quicker. I don’t know if they even wanted to be at the bottom, but that’s the way they were all going. But I suddenly got bored of that game, so I did that weird thing you can do with your eyes to make things blurry and not blurry. Focussing. I could make the raindrops as sharp as anything if I looked at them in the right way, but then if I concentrated I could make it seem like they weren’t there at all. I could make the rain go away with my head. Maybe that was my talent.

Beyond the rain there wasn’t much to see, except maybe more rain.  The same fence had been running alongside us for miles and miles, and I wondered who would have the patience to put something like that up. You know – trudging along in wellingtons with posts and a hammer. Every few metres you’d have to stop and push a post into the ground, and you’d be doing all day just to make sure nothing got out. But it seemed like the post-pusher had gotten a bit lazy, since there were bits of the fence that were all wonky, and some had fallen over entirely. They were all covered in the strange yellowy-green colour that happens to everything when you put it near a tree; that was the only thing that made them all the same. Even then, the animals inside didn’t seem like they wanted to escape. Most of the sheep were either eating grass or staring at me as we drove by. I like to think that they were jealous, because it was raining and they were probably cold and damp, but I was dry and warm. But I think I’d quite like to be a sheep – you’d just sit around saying ‘baa’ all day, and nobody cared who your parents were. All of the cows we passed were lying down, because cows lie down whenever it’s going to rain – all so that they can be lying down on a dry bit of grass. I don’t think I’d like to be a cow. I don’t really know why.

The man lit another cigarette, and I curled my nose up as the air turned into a stale fog; I made sure he didn’t see me frown because that would be rude. I can’t remember how long it’d been since he’d finished his last one, dropping it out of the window with a poetic look on the back of his head, and he probably knew I was watching him as he was doing it. I was that sort of child. I wasn’t surprised that he smoked; most people did, after all. I’d even caught Mother sitting at the top of the stairs with a cigarette, which was strange because she’d told me that I should never do it because it was unhealthy. She’d looked a bit surprised that I’d caught her, but she didn’t seem too ashamed about it; she just muttered that the smoke was getting into her eyes, and that’s why she was crying, and I should go to bed now. I’m never going to smoke because I don’t want to cry any more than I have to. But other people smoking doesn’t bother me too much aside from the smell; it sticks to your clothes like a hug that goes on for too long, though I don’t mind hugs that go on for a long time.

Anyway, I wasn’t surprised that he smoked; it fit with the rest of the van.  Everything about it was meticulously half-clean, as if he’d set aside a particular day of the week for it, and he’d said that he would clean it really thoroughly on that day, and that day came around, and he cleaned it. But then he got bored. There were crumbs of something or other in the seams of the seats, and torn pages of gardening magazines on the floor. A Christmas tree air freshener spun and waltzed on its string, even though it was the end of January. The parts of the windscreen that the wipers couldn’t reach were almost opaque, so I had to look out of the side window. I was fairly short back then; I’m too tall now. But there wasn’t anything interesting to see out of the front, anyway: just the road and the grey.

The man cleared his throat, the sound a rumble over earthy phlegm. It was the first noise he’d made in hours, other than the soft click of his lighter and his deep breathing. It felt like he was going to say something important, so I looked at him, because it’s polite to look at the person speaking to you. He didn’t look at me, though I knew he knew I was looking at him. He didn’t say anything either, though he seemed to be silently telling me to stop looking at him. He took another wheeze of his cigarette. But it was strangely comforting that he didn’t seem to care about me; we both knew that I was here and that I had to be here, and as far as he was concerned that was enough to think about for now.

My trunk bumped about in the back of the van, thudding as the man sped up and slowed down, trying not to break the axels on the bigger cracks in the road. It would have been quieter if it were fuller. Suddenly the trunk sounded like it was louder than anything, and our silence grew awkward. He cleared his throat again.

“You have a big trunk, given that you don’t have much to put in it.”
“I used to hide in it,” I said absentmindedly.

The man nodded. We considered this a lengthy enough conversation for now.

I don’t remember how much time passed after that; the only way I measured it was by sneaking glances at the man’s cigarette to see how burned down it was, but I don’t know how long cigarettes take to burn. To make it even worse, I’m sure I got distracted occasionally and he’d start another one without me realising. He certainly smoked a lot – if I ever wanted to go home, all I’d have to do would be to follow the ash he’d been tapping out of the window, like Hansel and Gretel but with fewer colours. I’m not sure why I even thought I might want to go home; it was the first time I’d thought of it all day, which is especially strange considering there’d been so little else to think about. I suppose I’d just been blocking it out by pulling silly faces at sheep and seeing if they’d say hello to me.

But then we swerved around to the left and home appeared. Or what became home. Well, more accurately it was everything near home – the town. I’m still not sure what I should call the place; we’re not on first-name terms. Back then the entire place looked like an old dog, especially in the January rain. You could tell it’d once been fearsome, with red-brick towers rising up like bloodied cigars and echoes of industry littering the place. Like any old dog, it seemed fairly sweet and quaint now, but I was sure it would bite if you got on its bad side. But don’t think it was a ruin of a place – there were still factories and mines and shops and houses. Houses and houses. The place throbbed with life like an artery but a clogged one – the blood wasn’t going anywhere, that was for sure.  It struck me as odd that I hadn’t noticed the town until we were upon it, and that I’d never heard of the place even though it seemed like it had been important only a decade ago.

The best place to live peacefully is in a dying place, carrying on like those crawlies you find underneath rotting logs. But here nobody would take a look under the log. I liked the thought of that.

We were driving along cobbled roads now, the bumps making the crumbs jump out of the seams. The van was exciting because it didn’t have seatbelts, so the bumps were making me jump too, though after a little while I began to wish it was safer. Or at least that the seats were softer. But then we were out of the town and on to an earthier road, which I imagined would get quite dusty when it was dry. It didn’t seem like it ever got dry. I’d thought that the man lived somewhere in the mess of cobbled streets and factories, and so I looked to him again.

“We live outside of town,” he said, without turning to me, “because it’s safer.”
“You mean there could be an accident at one of the factories, or something?”
“No.”

I gave him another quizzical look, more intensely this time, but he didn’t speak any more. He didn’t have to tell me; adults always have their reasons. They might be really bad reasons, but that’s better than having no reasons. I think it’s better than having no reasons, anyway. Maybe he felt guilty for being so blunt, but he became a lot more talkative after that. We drove past a few more fields, and the man told me that they were his fields. I asked what the name of that sheep was, and he said Betsy. And that one? Betsy. That one? Betsy, but that one always got called Betsy Blue. He didn’t tell me why. He really wasn’t such a bad man when you got to talking with him, at least when you were talking on his terms, but I felt he was playing games with me. I mean, it was obvious that all of those sheep weren’t called Betsy – he didn’t know which one I was pointing at because he was driving – but it seemed like something wasn’t quite right on a deeper level than that. I couldn’t tell if what he was saying was real or not. It was like making the raindrops blurry, so that you couldn’t tell where one finished and another one began. I don’t know how to explain it. I just felt odd.

“Welcome,” the man had said when we arrived, gently moving me forward with one rugged hand and hauling the trunk with the other.
“Thank you, mister.”
“There’s no need for that. You should call me by real name, I think. I’m—”
“Yes, mister.”
“Fair enough.”

As I remember it, Mister had never been a man for introspection, philosophical thinking, or any such poison I’d hoarded in my head for the months before and the years since. He was a man who would have called a spade a spade had he wished to talk to it; usually, though, he used it to dig. But for all his ruggedness – and he was as rugged as Hemingway – he was a good man and an honest man. He would have been a salt-of-the-earth sort of man, except he was probably closer to the earth itself. Looking up at the house for the first time, it was similar to the person who inhabited it – the stone was a thundercloud grey, and in some places as intimidating as a thunderclap; in others, it was as weak as a thin mist. Breathing arcane air, I shivered. Despite apparently being Georgian – though, I admit, I can only call it that in reflection – the house threw up uneasy towers and had a door more befitting a castle. But, for all its mismatched structures, it was away, and I certainly needed to be away. Let that be the end of that.

We shuffled into the hallway and out of the spitting rain, Mister placing down the trunk and instinctively wiping his hands on his trousers. It seemed a little dim inside, but everything is darker under weighty clouds. It all seemed to be grey, too, but at least it was a warm grey. As I waded through the fresh sights, a pair of yellow eyes peeped out from behind a stair spindle. The eyes stared for a little while, before sweeping back into hiding as if they’d never been there at all. It had either been the cat – or, more accurately, the kitten – or a very large insect. For the sake of being able to sleep later, I decided that it was a kitten and let Mister’s firm hand guide me along the hallway. I clacked a little in my formal shoes, but the noise was pounded out of the air by the lumbering thud of Mister’s galoshes. His cigarette had disappeared from his mouth, and you mightn’t have guessed that he smoked at all were it not for the lingering hiss of stench from his clothes.

“Do you not smoke in the house?”
“I’d like to, but it’d upset her.”
“Her?”
“Yes.”

Mister reached over to his left, his hand closing around a small brass handle I hadn’t noticed before; it looked like he expected it to open more easily, but with only a fraction of effort the little door opened, revealing a cupboard underneath the stairs. With about as much care as you might expect from a farmer, he thrust the trunk into the dusty crevice and pointed at it, as if I’d been daydreaming and hadn’t noticed.

“This is where I’m putting your things, for now. It’s a little cupboard under the stairs, opened by a handle, seven strides from the door.”

I let out a nervous smile at the odd level of precision, wondering if this was a rare strain of sarcasm in his personality. You couldn’t lose a trunk like this one, even though its sheen had been dulled and its surfaces covered in notches and dents, the biggest being fist-sized and directly in the centre of the lid. It would always come back to me. Mister saw me smiling and his brow furrowed, so I quickly went back to my permanent grimace. He was a very strange man – stranger still to agree to look after me, though I don’t know if he had much choice.

I very carefully asked why he was being so precise, and he asked me in return that wasn’t everybody so precise? When I said no, he blinked and his eyes seemed to disappear into his mind for a moment. Then he shrugged. He closed the door as nonchalantly as he could. I remember feeling, at that point, that he had a dancing, waltzing collection of skeletons in his closet. Not that particular closet, of course, because it couldn’t possibly fit both a trunk and a gaggle of skeletons, especially if they were dancing, but a closet somewhere. And it seemed to me that he was trying so hard to keep his secrets that the rest of the house suffered: the wallpaper, which I presumed had been green before the dust, was peeling in places. The lights flickered at best. Even Mister himself appeared to be fraying, but whenever I looked at him he’d stand as straight as a tree in a breezeless forest. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Do you like it here?” he said, lifting me out of my mind. Maybe he’d guessed what I’d been thinking.
“I like the hallway.”

I hesitated, hoping that I wouldn’t come off as sardonic or ungrateful. I did like the hallway; that much was true. It was very hallway-ish. It had a beginning and an end and doors leading into other rooms. But the hallway was all I’d seen. Mister shrugged again, uncomfortable without smoke in the air. He wasn’t much of a man, even if he was more than twice my height and looked like he could win an arm wrestle against a bear. We stood there for a little while, neither of us feeling particularly awkward. But then he lowered himself on to one knee so he could speak at my level, even though I hate that. It didn’t feel like he was doing it for my benefit. After all, he was probably quite deaf.

“Would you like to explore the rest of the house? Then we can look around the town. You’ll get used to the place quick enough, I’m sure.”

He wasn’t speaking to me like I was a child, but you could tell he thought I was a child. I mean, I was a child, but I didn’t like people noticing it. I sighed, and shrugged just as Mister liked to do. It must have looked a bit strange on the nail-head shoulders of a seven-year-old, because he smiled a little, though I didn’t mind. I was never one for worrying about what others thought of me, nor for getting worked up about it. But Mister apparently didn’t think shrugging was a good enough answer when I did it, so I had to murmur my agreement before he creaked back on to his feet. Then he did something really odd – he slipped his calloused hand around mine, and began to lead me through the house, clack after thud; thud, double clack. It was as if he knew exactly how many steps he needed in order to get around the house. He pushed open the first door on our right, reaching out with his spare hand to catch it before it hit the wall. Maybe that was another little game he played to amuse himself.

“This is the living room – where we live. We shuffle around like zombies in all of the other rooms.”
“Is that a joke?”
“No.”

I’d expected the living room to be better-kept than the hallway, since it had been difficult to imagine Mister trudging across carpet in muddy boots, but what I hadn’t dared to imagine burst into reality without me quite realising. The carpet was scraggy and mud-clagged in all of the places Mister must have often walked, and there was a distinct pair of boot-shaped stains just by the fire. The hearth was now only a flickering wisp in grey coals, but that was to be expected – if Mister usually didn’t bother to take off his boots, then he certainly wouldn’t take off his coat.

I shuddered at the memories dripping through the air, pouring out of all the room’s pictures. Naturally, there was an enormous portrait above the fireplace, like you find in all of these old houses. It was of an old man and his dog, but it wasn’t Mister, even though he was the only old man in the world I knew. The picture was a little faded, and the colours were a bit haphazard, so I assumed it was put up a while ago; maybe it was Mister’s dad, though I don’t know why you’d have a picture of your dad above a fireplace, unless you were hoping really hard that it’d catch fire from a little ember below. I don’t even have any pictures of my dad, so that was a bit of a silly thing to say. I’m sorry.

But it wasn’t just that photograph. Every available space in the room was taken up by a photo frame; the ones on the wall had edges that desperately needed polishing, but were probably forever locked into their fog. Looking more closely, I felt a little knot in my mind beginning to twist. In every photograph – every one – there was the same woman. It was the same woman at twenty and forty and sixty and older; she was sitting with friends or she was with Mister, or she was walking along some old street somewhere, laughing. But strangest thing of all was that each appearance had been marred by a grubby fingerprint, almost blotting out her face entirely.  I let go of Mister’s hand and walked around the room before settling on a tiny image, almost smothered by the collection of photographs around it. It was the woman, of course, but she was gently leaning back against the railing of a bridge, a river stretching out behind her. I’m not sure how to describe it, because I can’t remember it very well. All I remember is beginning to lose myself to her, not because she was attractive – though she was; she was – but because of the way she looked at the camera. You could tell that she was thinking. There was a fountain of thought behind that wry smile. Maybe I didn’t feel like that. Maybe I’m confusing what I knew then with what I know now.

But I couldn’t look at it for long. A bristly hand slowly reached past my shoulder and took the frame from my hands, placing it back on the dresser where it had been. Face-down. Of all of the photographs, that was the grubbiest one.

“Shall we move on?” said Mister levelly.

I let his hand take mine again, feeling lightheaded and a little off-balance. I’m not sure why. It was like walking through a shrine, or maybe a gallery, or maybe a memory. A mind of memories. Mister’s hand seemed slightly tenser than it had been moments ago, if only moments had passed. I don’t know what he’d been doing while I had sifted listlessly through the room. I wondered if he’d been watching me. I hoped I hadn’t done anything wrong. For the first time I truly felt that I’d been a guest in someone else’s reality, though I was more an unwelcome trespasser than a pleasant visitor. That’s how I felt, anyway. I was probably overthinking it.

He led me over to a window, just by another door. It was a view that looked out over the fields, the far-off horizon lined with trees. I walked up to the sill and gently placed my hand on the pane, enjoying the cool on my palm. I heard Mister open the adjacent door, and the way it was hinged made it so that I was blocked off from the rest of the room. Now I was contained in my own realm of nature and light, alone from the world. I felt the pulse of my thoughts and the thinness of the air in the bright alcove. But then Mister pulled the door back a little, and suddenly I was in a house with muddied carpet and the lilting smell of oldness. I tried to forget that little sanctum and bring myself back to what I could touch and feel. No. Only what I could touch.

“Shall we move on?” he said again, and it was almost as if he had never let go of my hand.

We went upstairs next, though there wasn’t a lot to see. Unlike downstairs, where every room seemed to have been lazily nailed on to another, this floor was laid out neatly, but at the expense of hallway space. If Mister had been any broader across his shoulders then I doubt he could have walked along it properly. I didn’t have that problem, and I still don’t. I tried the handle on one of the doors and gave it a thorough rattling. I thought it was like the cupboard door downstairs, a little stuck in its frame.

“Stop that,” said Mister, firmly but without malice. “The door’s locked.”

I opened my mouth to ask why it was locked, but I quickly remembered the living room and all of the mysteries that it held. I wasn’t sure I wanted even more questions, especially since I’d only just arrived here. But I became fixated by the smallest of details. Amber light spilled through under the door, casting upwards as if it were trying to wrap itself around our legs and hold us there forever. And in the glow I could see the dust floating. For all I knew it could have happened elsewhere in the house, but that was the first place I’d ever noticed it. I found myself wondering if the dust knew we could see it now, and if it’d prefer to be invisible. Well! It must have been a boring house if I was thinking about dust.

“Is it locked from the outside?” I attempted, content that I could bear a minor mystery.

Mister didn’t look at me and he didn’t answer. At first it seemed like he was staring straight through the door at whatever was beyond, but then his eyes turned downward to the amber light and the dust. Maybe this was a rarely acknowledged reminder that he should clean a little, if only for his health. I’m fairly sure he heard my question, but he didn’t show any inclination to answer. I wasn’t upset or surprised; I had enough to think about. He then showed me my room. It had a bed in it. Mister made me go down the stairs first, and I felt a small pause before he began to descend, too, but I might be making that up. Waiting at the bottom of the stairs, I gave Mister a chance to put on his coat and boots, but of course he hadn’t taken them off in the first place. The old man certainly didn’t wait for me to realise this: he was out of the door and about to close it before I’d even left the house.

We didn’t take the van into town; it wasn’t too much of a walk, and we didn’t have to carry the trunk with us. The January rain had lightened into a barely perceptible drizzle, the air cold and sharp – it had been so dry in the tepid house that I’d almost forgotten rain existed. Nobody was driving along the road, though it continued past the house and into the woodland, so we ended up walking right down the middle of it with Mister’s first question ringing in my head. Do I like it here? I suppose I do. Trees are always at their greenest in the rain, or at least it always seems that way, and the house was quaint enough.

“How long have you lived here?”
“How long have you lived?”
“Seven years.”
“Longer than that.”
“But how long?”
“I’m not sure; not exactly. My memory isn’t what it was.”
“What was it?”
“I can’t remember.”

He spoke without mirth. Aside from the little smile at my shrugging, I hadn’t really seen Mister express any happiness since I’d been with him. It wasn’t that he was sad – he just didn’t show anything. Maybe there was a curse on the house that sucked out all of your emotions. Well, it wouldn’t get mine. I wouldn’t let it! But it did seem that conversation had been cursed when it came to Mister; it felt like every question led to that door upstairs, locked, but with just enough light to make you keep trying the handle. He would keep using vague or mono-syllabic sentences until you gave in and accepted that you weren’t getting anywhere. It didn’t really annoy me. It’d be silly to think he’d share everything on the first day of knowing me; it takes time for people to lower their guards and reveal who they really are.

After a few minutes, the crimson chimneys of the town appeared in the distance. I almost expected Mister to hurry up, now that we could see the end of the journey, but he just continued in his lumbering thud. Thud, clack clack. Thud, clack clack. We were a strange pair, that was for sure. Even if Mister had been the sociable type, he never would have talked to someone like me were we not in this situation. It was another awkward family gathering. And why would I ever talk to him? An old man out in the fields, built like a castle, with a fondness for galoshes. It made me wonder, just as an idle thought, if I were imagining the whole thing. If Mister was just some sort of creature I’d found in the forest, and I was imagining it to be my guardian, and imagining there’d be a new life ahead of me. I had to blink very hard after that, so hard that my eyes had flashes of light in them for a while.

There weren’t many people wandering about the town. Perhaps it was a Sunday; I’d lost track of the days a long time ago. More likely was that they were all sheltering inside. Even though the rain had almost stopped, there was enough to splatter down the windows of the shops and houses, and people would be forgiven for thinking the downpour fiercer than it was. But I suppose I was glad there weren’t many people about; if there were, I might be spotted trudging along with a ragged old man, and that could be slightly embarrassing.

I should probably say that I liked him. I mean, as much as I’ve said that Mister was old and boring and whatever else, I was still thankful that he’d chosen to take care of me. There was a good chance that my life would be boring now, but boring would be good, for a while, at least.

Là – A Ballade Supreme

Ce dont j’ai besoin, tu l’as pris de moi
En riant, dansant, la nuit dans tes yeux.
On courait ensemble jusqu’à ce qu’on soit
Soulevé à l’aube, tenu par le feu.
Je souhaite d’y rester encore un peu.
En ayant ton cœur, j’ai cru avoir tout,
Mais en t’adorant, tu m’as rendu fou.
Tu penses, ma chérie, que j’arriverai
Afin de construire un pont entre nous?
Tu peux me voir là – là je disparais.

Ce dont j’ai besoin, tu montais une fois,
Et tu donnais ton temps quand que j’aie peur.
Je peux pas faire face à encore de toi,
Et j’attends minuit, j’attends la bonne heure,
J’attends le moment auquel l’amour meurt.
Je cherchai le répit, il m’a trouva;
Je peux y rester, je peux rester là,
Où l’aube monte sans cesse et apporte l’été.
Je peux échapper; triste je serai pas.
Tu peux me voir là – là je disparais.

Tu ne me manques pas – c’est pas ça en soi;
Ils me manquent les rêves, et le pire de ceux,
C’est le rêve d’être sûr pour mois après mois,
D’éviter les risques, d’éviter les jeux.
J’ai honte d’avouer que tu étais mon dieu.
Mais pas plus! Pas plus! C’est pas plus le cas!
J’échappais au soleil, vis dans ses bras!
Et je tombe des toits comme oiseau cassé
Pour me reposer sur les dalles au bas—
Tu peux me voir là – là je disparais.

Pelican Harbour

I used to sit by Pelican Harbour,
and hanging my feet over the sea wall
I would watch the most beautiful boats sail.

I loved the world of Pelican Harbour;
I ran my fingers through cracks in the stone
as the fishermen tied brisk knots of rope.

They hauled the nets at Pelican Harbour;
I watched the fishermen clump in wet boots
along the bleak concrete pier to go home.

And I knew they loved Pelican Harbour,
but though I could not haul the nets of fish
I knew I loved the harbour even more

but could not be of Pelican Harbour;
I could not sail or knot or haul or clump
and there is no harbour without a boat.

I sat on the sea wall and watched her breathe
in a cold fret from beyond the dark sea;
I fell from the wall in a blinding gale
to linger among the shards and the shale.

Dragons? Dragons.: Chapter 18 and Epilogue

Chapter 18

 

Alf’s illness suddenly became apparent to me. It was not down to his old age, or anything like that – in fact, it wasn’t even because of an illness he’d randomly contracted. He was poisoned. It was a gradual and painful death, and all because of Dad.

The vet had asked then whether Alf was being fed anything strange, and Dad denied that Alf was eating anything more than his usual food. But he was. Dad had been putting drugs into his food, little by little, seeing what Alf could handle. Alf was old and weak, so he couldn’t handle much, and he died. Then Dad buried him with more drugs – the very thing that had killed him – for safekeeping. It made me retch. Maybe when the stock of the kitchen cupboard ran out, he’d return to the hill and open the grave. He’d fetch his plastic bags and replace the earth, and be on his way. This man was my father. But what could I do? Nobody would believe the ramblings of children, and even if I was believed I couldn’t survive without him. Mother dead; father a drug dealer. I would turn out to be the picture of success, doing every cash-in-hand job I could find and living in a hovel somewhere. Or, perhaps, living nowhere at all.

So this was what Will knew. This is why he couldn’t tell me. I wondered where he was at this very moment, and whether he reckoned I would have discovered the truth by now. “Stay strong”. Ha! I’d abandoned any idea of that a long time ago. Now I felt I was living in some sort of dream, a mindless puppet in the hands of Fate.

Had Dad been responsible for Mother’s death? No, that was going too far, but it did feel like that man had tainted everything I loved. And why stop at Alf’s grave? Maybe he’d snuck some drugs into Mother’s coffin too. Maybe he planned to murder me, just to use me as storage for his contraband. He’d bury me far away too, and the worms would feast on me, and I’d sink deep into the mud and be forgotten.

I shuddered. I was being affected by this far more than any other event – even more than when Mother died. I’d put my everything, my absolute trust into Dad, and now I’d discovered that it had all been a lie. I no longer had an anchor or foundation, and I wasn’t yet ready to stand alone. Because of this, I’m not sure I ever could.

It was now just as Emma had said – I would have to choose between justice and happiness. Judging by how I felt right now, the decision seemed to have been made for me. What the future then held was uncertain, but both paths were bleak. I sat on my bed and stared out of the window, waiting for the advent of night, and I knew that this night would only literally end.

***

The moon shone so closely and brightly that it seemed to be pushing the pane from the window frame, and I forced myself to keep my eyes open. This night, more than any other, would be the one on which witches flew, and dragons would rest on the moon and yawn. I yawned. There was no-one else now – there was no Emma here, there was no Will anywhere in Ramsley. There was no librarian, there was no Alf, there was no Mother. There was only me. Me and the night and the moon. That was all I needed. Those were things I could trust.

Dad had long since gone to bed – I could hear him snoring through the wall. All of Ramsley seemed quiet as could be: even the gulls had returned to their nests, and were probably all soft and snug and sleeping. I threw my legs out of bed and shivered.

The house was very different at this time. Every nook was home to horrible demons, and the curtains concealed monsters of untold ugliness, but they did not faze me. As I crept downstairs I saw Alf’s empty bed, and remembered the grave and the corpse. I shivered again, and hurried past it. I gently pushed open the door to the kitchen, and closed it behind me even more carefully. For leaving the house during the night, I would be reprimanded. For doing this, I would never see the sun again.

I dragged a chair from the kitchen table and put it next to the worktop. I clambered onto it, and stood there for a while, hearing only the sound of my own breath. I already knew what was in this cupboard – it was the confirmation that scared me. It would be the absolute confirmation – and the proof – that, at the least, Dad was involved in the trading of drugs. But it would confirm far more – that the most important person in my life was a crook, and that the past few months had been a life of fabrication, manipulation and needless heartbreak.

I opened the cupboard door. It swung open like a delicate breath, and revealed a roaring and screeching pain. Within the cupboard were plastic bags, just like the ones next to Alf’s body, but there were more here. Many, many more. One had been opened. The cupboard brimmed with white powder, with all the grace and organisation of a sweaty, fat-fingered, obese contortionist. It seemed to smile out at me – it had won. I had discovered the virus too late, and now it could not be cured. I closed the cupboard, but stayed standing there, balanced precariously on the chair. I felt dizzy. There was no denial now. There could be no denial.

The kitchen door opened, and the light switched on. I did not need to turn around to know that it was Dad – who else could it be? My mind filled with a blind rage: anger that he’d lied; anger that he’d killed Alf. I leapt down from the chair and attacked him with raw fury. My fists shot out in flurries, hitting the wall, hitting Dad, or hitting nothing at all.

He wrapped his hands around the back of my neck and lifted me into the air, before smashing my face against the floor. My arms fell limp, and I wept. I had been betrayed, and I was powerless to stop it. I lay on the floor, with lukewarm sensation of blood crossing my face and falling to the floor like a dripping tap. I wept. I wept. I wept.

“Tom,” the man whispered, “I didn’t want to tell you about my secret because I knew you would get hurt.”

He stroked my hair. I shivered, but remained silent.

“I did what I had to do.” he continued, drawing in a sharp breath every so often, “After all, you wouldn’t want to be without me, would you? Sat by yourself in an orphanage or care home or whatever you want to call it. No, you want me here. So this is what I did.”

I wasn’t crying no, but I wasn’t angry. I simply stared across the kitchen floor, trying to ignore the raging pain in my head and the blood on the floor.

“You have school tomorrow, so what I’d like you to do is to go back upstairs and go to bed. It wouldn’t do for you to be tired. You might fall asleep in the lessons. Off you go.”

He released his grip on my neck, though I didn’t get up. He wandered over to the cupboard, and opened it. I suppose he was checking its contents. I got up and slunk off, turning around at the door: he seemed perfectly normal now, as if nothing had changed. He must have noticed I was still standing there, since he loudly cleared his throat, and I hurried off up the stairs.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. The bleeding from my nose seemed to have stopped, but the pain hadn’t. I blinked, and looked over at Roo sitting on the bedside table. He’d seen none of what had happened, but I still found pain in his eyes – a reflection of mine. My face was red and covered in dried blood, my eyes sore from crying, and my mind bursting with emotions. I could feel the earthquakes and eruptions of my brain, the vast expanses of pain and disconnection.

Dad wasn’t like this. It must have been my fault: he’d never wanted me to look in that cupboard, but I did anyway. I’d disobeyed him, and so I’d been punished. This was normal. I scolded myself for being so stupid. I’d have to punish myself somehow, too. I had been a terrible son, and that man knew it. I touched my nose gingerly, feeling a spike of pain at merely touching the skin. Was it broken? It might be. But I couldn’t see a doctor about this. It was family business, not for the prying eyes of others.

***

I didn’t go to school the next day. I dressed as usual and ate as usual and left the house as usual, but I didn’t go. Emma and I hid in the streets of Ramsley, somewhere that man wouldn’t find us. She was a diligent student, but it hadn’t taken much to convince Emma to stay off school with me. I’d developed a black eye overnight, and – of course –my nose had become a bit of a strange shape. I was glad of Emma: she’d experienced all of this already, but at a far worse level. My injuries were nothing.

I tried to explain to her everything that had happened, I really did. But at certain moments I felt my throat close, and I could say nothing. At these points she would smile a little and rub my arm and, though it made little difference, it showed that she understood what I was trying to say. And so the story was told – in juddering utterances. I could not look at her as I spoke. Why should I be allowed to look at her? I was nothing. Nothing, and no more than that.

“Tom,” she said quietly, “we need to get the police involved.”

“No. I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“He’s all I have. Besides, I can handle this. I don’t need help.”

“That isn’t acting tough, Tom. That’s being stupid.”

“You don’t understand – I hate him, I really do, but I can’t lose another parent.”

Emma sat closer and rested her head on my shoulder. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Emma anymore. The instant attraction had long since faded, and she didn’t seem quite so beautiful any more. She’d taken to tying her hair back, and she’d started wearing glasses, and she’d dyed her hair. She was still the Emma I’d known, but different. I could feel the rift between us growing larger, and in many ways I didn’t want to stop it, or heal it. I was my own person now – it was Roo and me. We were a team, and not even that man could change that. He was the remnant of Mother to which I clung.

I moved my shoulder. Emma sighed, and sat up. She could feel it too; she knew. We were growing up. This is what growing up did. We were older now, and didn’t have time for each other. She was in her own league, and I was in mine, somewhere close to the floor. I shivered. But she was right. I would have to involve the police. This part of my life would have to be closed. What did it matter if I left these people behind? I didn’t care about them. The only person I’d cared about was Mother, and she’d gone a long time ago. A long time ago.

The sun silhouetted the clouds above, so that I could see their rolling hills of white, tinged with gold. They drifted through the hued-orange sky, and it seemed that the path they took was the only one of peace, and the only one of happiness.

I nodded to myself. That’s where Mother is.

***

Councillor Bluck sat down opposite me. She wore her usual expression, for which I’d coined the phrase ‘stern disinterest’. The intimidation of her glare was somewhat undermined, however, by the enormity of her two front teeth. There was still a hint of enmity in the room, but her eyes gave off an air of concern as their focus darted around my features. It felt like she was drawing her own conclusions as to how I’d acquired a broken nose and a black eye. Those conclusions were probably correct, but apparently she felt like confirming them anyway.

“You look awful.”

“So do you.”

“Well, at least your wit hasn’t been damaged.”

We were in a room of the town hall I’d never seen before. It was a little further along the corridor than the main meeting room, but they had little else in common other than a shared hallway. The walls were of a sterile white colour, and the chairs seemed to have been picked out from a skip. But it needed no extravagant décor. Certainly not for my purposes. I had Roo with me, as always – he was my motivation. I’d alienated – or been alienated from – everyone else but him. We were the lone warriors in the dark night outside. I hoped that we would not fail.

The pain in my nose had seceded by now, but my mind was still filled with the emotions of the past days. They’d been there all my life, really, but it was only now that they’d found an opening. I had never experienced such loneliness, such purposelessness, such anger. I longed for dragons, but I knew they would never come.

“Councillor Bluck, I know who kidnapped you.”

“You do?”

“I know who set Bloody Dark ablaze.”

“Who?”

“And I know so much more. Too much more.”

“Who did those things, child?”

I told her the story. My throat did not close up, I did not stutter. In fact, I hardly paused in the telling of it. Bluck did nothing more than nod in response. She continued nodding even when I told her all of the other things that had happened to me, irrelevant to the crimes. I told her about Emma, and I told her about the librarian, and I told her about dragons. I told her everything I knew about dragons, which was a lot. She kept nodding, and telling me to go on. I felt my mind clearing with every sentence I spoke, and a strange feeling – it was a grim happiness. I recognised the horrors I’d experienced, but at the same time I was not entangled by the fear and terror of it.

When she was sure I had finished, Bluck stood up and left the room. She was going to make a phone call, she said, to another town. They had a police force that did more than eat biscuits and watch day-time television. I found myself smiling for the first time in days at the thought of Old Cudgers with a cup of tea and his feet up, and his socks off. Alright, the last part of that turned my smile into a face of disgust, but I was happy the muscles in my face still worked.

She returned not too long afterwards.

“Come with me,” she said, “I can’t leave you here by yourself.”

She held her hand out, and I grasped it. Outside, the street was filled with police cars. Well, maybe it wasn’t filled, but there were more police cars there than I had ever seen in my life. They were all filled with particularly-burly men and burlier women, and – judging by their expressions – they either meant business or had sat on something sharp.

“We need all of these police officers?”

“If everything you’ve told me is true – and I think it is – then we can’t be too prepared. I think your father is a very… a very sad man. We need as many people as possible to help him.”

I nodded, though I didn’t quite understand what she meant.

We walked back to my house, with most of the cars crawling along beside us – it wasn’t far, and we didn’t want to alert the man to our presence. The officers got out of their vehicles when we reached the seafront and continued on foot. It was only then that I realised how many of them there were. I could see my house up ahead, though it didn’t feel much like my house any more. It was a part of my past, and it was the end.

Some of the officers detached from us and ran around to the back of the house. It ran better than clockwork, and with less charming antiquity. It seemed like most of Ramsley had left their houses and joined us for this moment. I looked around at the sea of faces. They looked back. I looked away. They kept looking.

As the officers approached the door, I remembered that I’d locked it behind me on my way to the town hall. But it didn’t seem to matter much to them: the kicked it open and ran inside. The moments afterwards were surprisingly quaint, given that the largest police raid Ramsley had ever seen was taking place. A dragon on the moon yawned, and looked down inquisitively. The ocean sloshed in and out of Cliffmouth. Somewhere in the darkness, up on the hill, Alf rested. I stood among the same crowd that had seen my mother buried, and tightly held onto Councillor Bluck’s hand.

It wasn’t long before they dragged the man from the house. He didn’t appear to be showing much resistance – after all, what could you do against so many trained officers? I watched him shuffle along the ground, and then he looked up at me. I caught his eye, and I stared deep into those dark, saddened pits. This was the man I had loved. This was the man I loved. He began to cry, and I felt the taste of tears on my lips. No, this was not happiness, but it was justice.

The officers had stopped dragging him. He was talking to them. They brought him over, and the crowd moved out of the way.

“Give Roo to me.”

“No.”

“Tom, I need to show you something.”

I gripped Councillor Bluck’s hand more determinedly, but handed Roo over. My heart beat loudly in my chest. He wasn’t going to hurt him, was he? The man turned Roo around and pinched a thread on his back. The badly-sewn seam slid open, and the man opened the gap wider with his thumb and forefinger.

A fine, white powder poured out of Roo’s back. The crowd gasped; the police officers snatched Roo from the man’s hands; they dragged him away. I kicked and screamed and bawled. They couldn’t take Roo away, not after all of this. Not after everything. Bluck grabbed me and held me back, as the officer carrying Roo disappeared into the throng. They pushed the man into a car they’d moved into position, and slammed the door. They drove off. The crowd around me dispersed – the show was over, and they continued with their lives. Such was Ramsley: it continued clicking and turning through fire, through snow, and through scandal.

Councillor Bluck let go of my hand and walked away into the night. I stood alone. And without Roo, I was now truly alone.


 

Epilogue

 

I hurried through the darkness. My feet pounded; my heart pounded. I ran to the beat of some far-off drum, echoing and pulsing through the night. It had been easy to get out of the house, even easier than when I’d lived in my original house. All I had to do was avoid waking Miss Catherine and climb out of the window – my bedroom was at ground level. She’d been very kind to take me in, though I got some funny looks at school for it. I didn’t mind – it was better than getting funny looks for the other things that had happened.

The moon seemed to hang particularly low in the sky tonight. Perhaps it was inquisitive, maybe even as inquisitive as Alf’s prodding nose.  It had the same gleam as his eyes, though Alf’s breath wasn’t as cold as the midnight breeze. I shivered and hurried on.

The lawyer had called it an open-and-shut case, though I had no idea what he was opening and closing – if he meant his notebook, then he’d flipped its pages far more than once. I hadn’t gone to court: the lawyer just wrote down all I said. I told him everything, just as I’d said everything to Councillor Bluck. Apparently the police people had been to visit Alf’s grave, and looked at the evidence there. They’d cremated him, like you were supposed to, and let me scatter the ashes. I’d scattered them in the woods, since that was the place he’d loved the most. Sometimes I thought I saw him running around the forest in the distance, laughing and playing just out of sight, but it must just have been my imagination.

They’d examined Roo, too, and after the trial they’d given him back. That was very kind of them, I thought, but I was unsure about him. Dad had apparently been sent to jail for a long time, but people were helping him to get better. I liked that. You shouldn’t really give up on anybody. I hadn’t been to visit him yet, but they told me I was allowed to at some point. I knew I was going to go, but I didn’t know when.

I ran down onto the beach, and took my shoes and socks off. I’d have to remember to come back for them later, but I wanted to feel the sand between my toes.

Councillor Bluck had decided to let the people of Ramsley vote for who they thought should be mayor. I suppose it backfired a bit, since she lost, but at least she got her portrait in the town hall. I didn’t know who was elected in her place, but I didn’t really care. I was happy to live life without politics for a while, especially when the latter now held a vengeful Bluck.

I stopped running, and set Roo down on the sand. I sat down in front of him. Dad had told me to keep him close at all times. After all, he was my link to mother.

But then he’d been tainted. That man had affected even Roo, and made him part of the horror. He couldn’t be my link to Mother now. Or at least I didn’t think he could. I looked at his ruined fur and his emaciated form. He symbolised all of the horrible things I’d been through – being bullied; almost dying, and so much more. But when I looked into his eyes, I saw my friend. The one who had stood by me when all of the others had fallen away, or when I’d pushed them away. Did I want to keep a past hope alive, or begin anew? Roo was the final connection to my family. I didn’t know if I wanted that connection.

I took the box from my pocket. Miss Catherine used them to light the cooker, and so she left them out in the open all of the time. It had been easy to slip them into my pocket, ready for this moment. If this moment came.

“You know, Roo, there’s one mystery that I never solved. The greatest mystery of them all.”

He stared back with an expression of vague contentedness.

“I still don’t know what happens at the end of ‘The Bears’. I never read it, not even to you.”

Still the vague contentedness.

The moon shone down brightly. It was a cold and cloudless night. Summer promised to be warm and dry, apparently. But weather forecasters get it wrong all the time, and they never got fired for it. I smiled to myself and sighed.

I struck the match against the side of the box, and the flame hissed into life. It was one of two sources of light in the entire town at this time – the other was the flickering lamppost at the end of the street. I could feel its warmth, and Roo’s eyes glowed a rich orange colour. I’d spent months searching for dragons: for flying, fire-breathing lizards. And yet here I was, bearing the fire. Did that make me a dragon? No, I knew too many dragons to become one myself.

I held the match up, close to Roo’s face. Past hope, or begin anew? The match was slowly burning down, closer to my fingers.

Past hope, or begin anew? The fire drew closer to my hand. I decided.

Dragons? Dragons.: Chapters 16 and 17

Chapter 16

 

I returned to the library many times in the following days. I thought he was joking – after all, how could he know that I would never see him again? I saw it as a challenge more than anything. So whenever I had the chance I ran along the seafront to that rickety old building. I peered through the door, and saw nothing. He didn’t ever seem to sit at his desk any more, though he was undoubtedly scribbling away somewhere in the shadows. The door was locked, too. But every time I looked through there seemed to be fewer and fewer books, replaced by shadows and colourful patches on the carpet.

It wasn’t long before the demolition team rolled in, biting and clawing away at the rotten wood. I stood amongst the strangest collection of people: there was Miss Catherine, and Mr. Garter, and many other people. I could only assume that it was the Vernal Order, and I was seeing them for the first time without their signature garb. We stared at the crumbling walls, and stayed there until long after it had been reduced to splinters and stones. The librarian must have left Ramsley a while ago, though apparently no-one had seen him leave.

And where would he go? Perhaps he’d just wandered off into the sunset, like the endings to those films. The audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but just assumes the main character will be alright in the end.  I looked around at the faces surrounding me. They all seemed to carry the same, vague frown.

“Miss Catherine?”

“Yes?”

“What do you think will happen to him?”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly say. But hopefully he will have left his dragons here.”

“What kind of dragons?”

She smiled at me, and then wandered off, back along the seafront. The rest of the Vernal Order dispersed similarly, probably never to unite again. It was sad – they only had one link between them, and it had simply faded away. I stayed a little bit longer, looking at the remains of the library. I’d been unimpressed with it at first, but the atmosphere had grown on me. Now it was as broken as its former inhabitant. He’d endured the greatest tragedy a man could experience. Though had he endured it? He’d gone mad – I suppose it was better than dying.

I headed home, leaving the ghost of the library behind. It had been my solace when Mother had died, and now it was my sorrow. Come to think of it, the librarian’s story was not dissimilar to mine. Or Dad’s. In fact, it was almost exactly Dad’s story. Would he end up like the librarian? I hurried home more quickly. He’d always have my support, but how much did that help with Mother gone?

I found him in the kitchen, messing about with the cupboards again: long ago I’d put this down to force of habit, and nothing more. I threw my arms around him, though he seemed a bit taken aback by the suddenness of it.

“Dad,” I said quietly, “I love you.”

“What’s brought this on?”

“Don’t leave.”

“Of course I’m not going to leave – we’re a team. Nothing’s going to separate us, right?”

“Right.”

“So go sit through the front and I’ll bring some food in for you.”

We were a team. Nothing could separate us. I was about to have lunch.

***

“You have to admit,” said Will nonchalantly, “they demolished it pretty well.”

“I think you’re missing the point.”

“Things change,” he replied, shrugging, “why should we try to stop the rolling boulder of life?”

“Because it evidently makes vulnerable old men homeless.”

“Well, yes, but we’d just get squished if we tried to do anything. It’s best just to run away from it.”

“I thought that was going to be a positive analogy.” said Emma.

“It is. It is if you’re an endurance runner.”

Some of the time, talking to Will was like ramming your head into a wall. Several times. But I suppose – to a certain extent – he was right. It wasn’t much use holding onto the past, unless you were a history teacher like Miss Catherine, and even she didn’t seem too keen on keeping this one anywhere near her. In less than a couple of years, there’d be new houses on this spot, with new families and new stories. The librarian and his dwelling would be pretty much forgotten. Why try to keep that sadness alive.

I wondered what my story was. It was probably all stored in Roo, I thought, holding him up. There was the scuff from the bullies; the ruined fur from the water, and the badly-sewn seam along his back after he’d been gashed by the rocks. I still didn’t know what Dad had used to replace the stuffing. Maybe he was more adept at toy-making than I thought. Despite his injuries, Roo still stared up at me with his gleaming eyes, and still bore the permanent smile on his face. He would forever be my link to Mother, and was probably my best companion. I’d never tell Will or Emma that, but nothing could replace Roo. He was the bear above all bears.

“Besides,” Will interrupted, “we have better things to be doing than moping around the ruins of a dirty old library.”

“Like what?”

“There’s a criminal on the loose. All we’ve discovered is what the criminal probably did at the school. We don’t know who he is or why he did it.”

“Can’t we just leave this to the police?” said Emma, rolling her eyes a little.

“Emma, Old Cudgers could never have climbed onto that roof. I’m guessing he just filled in the paperwork and filed the case away. If we don’t do this, then I doubt anyone else will.”

“We can’t really do much though. We went to the school and looked around – there’s nothing else we can do without being forensic scientists.”

“Ah, but it wasn’t just the school. At least, I don’t think it was.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I think this criminal has been responsible for everything that’s happened recently in Ramsley: after all, they all happened quite close together. If we can make up a credible story linking the crimes together, then we’ll be one step closer to catching the culprit.”

Will was really getting into this detective stuff. That, or he was having some problems filling his time these days. It was a mystery, though, and the final mystery we had to put to bed – and, after all, an unsolved mystery is like someone leaving a socket switched on, but with nothing plugged in.

“So where should we start?”

“We should probably begin with the greatest crime of all of the recent events – the fire at Bloody Dark.”

“But how can we possibly get anything from that? It’s just a burned-up wasteland now.”

“Got any better ideas?”

“A cup of tea and a biscuit, maybe.”

But Will was already striding off into the centre of Ramsley, and Emma and I were pretty much forced to follow him.

I was right – Bloody Dark was just a burned-up wasteland. It was strange to see something so airy and open, given that it had once been a cesspit of shadows, but maybe I would have preferred to see less. Where there had once been houses, there were now dried-out patches of light-brown earth – most of the ash had been blown away by the wind or otherwise disappeared by now, but no grass had begun to grow in its place.

“I suppose they can’t call it Bloody Dark anymore.”

“I don’t think they’ll change the name very easily. They aren’t very changeable people.”

“Well, the only thing it could possibly be called now is ‘Bugger All’.”

“How tasteful.” said Emma, bitterly.

All of the wooden buildings had disappeared almost entirely – you could occasionally see some charred parts of walls, but what had once been Bloody Dark was now a sprawling, flaking expanse of dried mud. The only surviving structures were those built out of stone, and even then you could see where they had been melted – they looked like grey-brown candles, but no longer alight.

One such building was the pub – arguably the most important part of the area for the former residents. It didn’t look too much different than when we’d last seen it, except it was fatter at the bottom and skinnier at the top. And as we approached, a man came flying through the window just as had happened before. But this time he didn’t get the chance to pass out in his own vomit, since he was knocked unconscious on the hard earth. He probably would have preferred it that way.

Everything inside the pub seemed exactly as it had been: even though there was bright daylight outside, the curtains were drawn and the lights switched on out of habit. A thick haze of smoke filled the room – you’d think it would bring back bad memories for the pub-goers, but they didn’t seem too bothered by it. I looked over to where the librarian had sat, over by the carvings. I half-expected to see him sitting there, but the stool was empty. I wandered over to take a closer look. There was the dragon on the town hall, but in its talons – no, contentedly standing next to it – was a young woman. Was she happy to be around the dragon, or simply oblivious? All around the figure were scribbles in the librarian’s handwriting: ‘Eileen’; ‘Eileen’; ‘Eileen’. I wasn’t surprised, but it was odd to have her so happily accompanying the dragon. Was she aware that it was a dragon at all?

I wandered back, mystified by the thoughts of the old man, to find Will sitting at the bar like he was some sort of regular. The landlord seemed a little confused by this.

“You know I can’t serve you, don’t you?”

“I don’t wish to be served, other than the refreshing drink of a mystery unravelling.”

“Will,” said Emma, “you don’t have to talk like you’re on television.”

“I can’t tell you nothin’, I slept through the entire thing, didn’t I?”

“You slept through it?”

“Yessir, and I was glad of the heat to be honest. It was cold back then, eh?”

“Do you know anyone who can tell us anything?”

“They’re either dead, long-gone or more hammered than a nail in a wall, aren’t they?” said the landlord, frankly, “but the Councillors ain’t touched a thing around here, and I doubt they ever will. That mayor is wanting green space, isn’t she?”

It took me quite a while before I realised that he was actually asking for confirmation this time, so I emphatically nodded and tried to forget the moments of awkwardness. We thanked the man and stepped outside again, blinking in the bright, natural light. Alright, so all of the evidence would still be here – if it hadn’t melted into a glob of solid incrimination – but where was ‘here’? The dried mud stretched in every direction. It could be anywhere from the less-youthful statue of the Unnamed Hero all the way up to the back of the Outer Ramsley houses. Besides, all it would take to start a fire in Ramsley would be a badly-thrown cigarette end, and those were certainly in abundance.

“Will,” I said, “are you sure this is actually a crime?”

“What do you mean?”

“Couldn’t it just be an accident? Someone dropped their lighter or something, and whoosh, there goes Bloody Dark.”

“Possibly, but I don’t think it was.”

“Why not? I’m surprised a group of wooden houses populated by people who carry fire in their pockets ended up surviving as long as it did.”

“The timing of this was too convenient. Think about it: Councillor Bluck had just become mayor. It wasn’t long after what had happened at the school. Then, when Bluck said she would catch whoever was responsible, she disappeared. Are you telling me that’s just coincidence?”

“It could be…”

“But it probably isn’t. And if they are linked – which they are – then it’s clear that a very dangerous man is behind these crimes. Theft; arson; kidnapping. He stopped at nothing, and if he’s still at large then he might yet do even worse.”

I’d never considered these things in the way that Will had. Suddenly I felt like it would have been better to have a dragon as the perpetrator. At least we knew what dragons were like.

“So,” Will continued, “it seems like the fire in Bloody Dark was started as a bit of a diversionary tactic—”

“A what?”

“Something to distract Bluck from whatever she had planned. Who’d want to stop Bluck?”

“Well, someone who was against green space, obviously.”

“Like who? ‘The Green-Hating Initiative’? No, it must have been something to do with her other plans. What else does she have in mind?”

We racked our collective minds. At that sort of age you don’t allocate much space towards remembering council policy, and surely we couldn’t be blamed for that. I fiddled with Roo’s ears, but he didn’t seem to be providing any answers either.

“Oh!” I said, “She wanted to fix the drugs problem in Ramsley. That was her other major idea. I don’t know why she’d have that as a big policy though, there’s no such thing as a drugs problem in Ramsley.”

“Are you kidding?” said Will, genuinely shocked, “This is the most drug-addled town along the entire coast.”

“That’s not what Dad said. There’s no problem.”

“Well, basically, there is. Besides, that fits into this situation perfectly.”

“How?”

“The drug-dealer doesn’t want to get caught by the sniffer dogs Bluck wants to train up, so he sets fire to Bloody Dark as a way of distracting her.”

The way Will’s mind worked put my head in a spin, but was he was saying sounded plausible, if a bit of an extreme measure to divert Bluck’s attention.

“What’s more,” Will continued, “most of his customers would have lived in Bloody Dark. Putting them out of a home would have made them even more vulnerable to his influence.”

“It also would have robbed them of any money they actually owned.”

“Ah, quite the opposite. Bluck handed out financial aid to the people who’d lost their homes. They probably spent it all on drugs, so it was probably quite profitable.”

“And the person who masterminded this also did a fairly-petty thieving job at the school?”

“Well, that was quite a while before the fire – I assume he would have needed some start-up cash, to get people into his grasp.”

“What a sick man.” said Emma.

“Yep. And he’s probably still out there.”

I looked around the dehydrated heart of Ramsley. So, a single person had apparently done worse than a dragon ever could have done. I shivered a little, though not because it was cold – Callow was a disturbed man, and had left; this man was evil, and was still here.

***

There was a knock at the door. I don’t think there had ever been a knock at the door which had brought good news. Given that this was quite early in the morning, I was going to make it bad news for the other person regardless of what they said.

It was Will, shivering in the thick sea fret. He smiled as I opened door and gave a short wave before thrusting his hands back into his pockets. I was about to rip out his lungs for waking me up so early, but he then spoke.

“Hi.”

‘Hi’? Well, that certainly didn’t help my fury. If he’d come around just to say hello then we would never meet again. Apparently he noticed my anger, and quickly followed up his previous word.

“I’m sorry for waking you up so early—”

“You’d better be.”

“—but this kind of important.”

“If it isn’t more important than me sleeping, then I don’t know what I will do, but I will not be responsible for my actions.”

Will laughed a little and stamped his feet. I had absolutely no intention of inviting him in: if he wanted to be somewhere warm, then he should have stayed in bed, rather than getting me out of mine.

“Well, I’m not sure how I can express this without being incredibly blunt.”

“Get on with it.”

“I’m moving away.”

“Get on with it already.”

“I just said it: I’m moving away.”

“What?”

This must have just been another one of Will’s pranks, or something, though he seemed very serious. I squinted into the fog behind him, and saw the unmistakable girth of a removal van, just like the one Emma had used when she arrived. This was a very elaborate prank. That, or he was entirely serious.

“When are you going?”

“Oh, well,” he said, looking at his watch, “in four or five minutes, I guess.”

“Very funny.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“Why are you going so suddenly? Why are you going at all?”

“This is what we do. We buy houses, fix them up, and then leave. We have to get money from somewhere, after all. We hadn’t planned to leave for a little while yet, but knowing you had Callow as a lodger kind of gets under your skin a little.”

“And why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“If I told you, then we wouldn’t have been friends, since you would have seen me as the guy who was just going to leave at some point. It’s easier to make friends this way.”

“And just as easy to cast them aside, I suppose.” I replied bitterly.

I shivered in the morning air. Everyone was leaving, it seemed. It was almost as if Ramsley wasn’t a very nice place to live any more. I watched my breath swirl away into the fog, and wondered what to say next. I was never very good at goodbyes – so far, they’d all been done for me. I suppose this time I’d have to take the initiative with conversation.

“Have you told Emma?”

“No,” he said, smirking, “I figured you’d prefer to break the bad news to her. And I don’t want to deal with an Emma deprived of sleep.”

“I don’t think we’ll catch the criminal without you, Will.” I said, trying to persuade him to stay by means of justice, “You’re the one with the detective mind.”

“Oh, no, you’ll certainly catch him. In fact, I already know who it is.”

“Who is it?”

“Well,” he said, shaking his head, “I can’t tell you that. I think it’s important for you to find it out for yourself. I wish I could be here for when you do, but I guess Fate has other ideas. Stay strong, Tom, and remember that I’m out there somewhere. I’m not going to pull a librarian on you and disappear forever.”

I laughed a bit and hugged him. I waved as he walked back to his car, and watched as the Brindley family drove away into the fog. Will had been my first real friend; he’d supported me at the worst times of my life, and been there for the best. I gently closed the door and sighed. Now only Emma and I remained.

On the other hand, now only Emma and I remained.


 

Chapter 17

 

“What did he mean by that?”

“By what?”

“‘Stay strong’.”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s his catchphrase or something.”

“A catchphrase we’ve never heard before?”

“Maybe he only says it to other people.”

“No, Emma, I don’t think it’s a catchphrase.”

We were sitting on the beach, later on the same day. Emma was refreshed and pretty as usual; I was grouchy and definitely not pretty. The fog had largely disappeared by this point. As far as I could tell, it had all been sucked into my brain, and now I had no idea what anything meant any more. I didn’t have a clue as to why I should be particularly strong now. Maybe he should have given me that advice back when I was facing Callow, or before that – when we were in the cave, or wandering around the school in the dark. It all seemed so long ago, and so much scarier than sitting on a beach acting like a shorter Sherlock Holmes.

“And apparently he knows who the criminal is, and won’t tell me. What’s the point in that?”

“I suppose he was just teasing you – you know what he’s like.”

“Maybe I don’t. Maybe he’s the criminal.”

“Sure, William Brindley is thief, arsonist and drug ringleader extraordinaire. Besides, he was with you when you saw the safe being broken into.”

“I was joking.” I said, quite irritated.

I wasn’t frustrated with Emma, but Will’s vagueness was really getting to me – it was like two switched-on sockets with nothing plugged in. What choice did we have now but to continue investigating? Apparently we were close to identifying the criminal. But what could Will see that Emma and I could not?

“What are the criteria for this, again?”

“Um,” said Emma, looking at the sky, “wanting to get rid of Councillor Bluck is the main thing, really. Otherwise, you just have the regular reasons for why people get involved with drugs.”

“And what are they?”

“You seem to think I’m some sort of expert!” she said, laughing, “But I suppose you might turn to drugs if you’re depressed, and to selling them if you have money problems. Not my ideal career path.”

“Do you know anyone like that?”

“Nope.”

“Neither do I.”

Well, this investigation was going well – we’d hit a dead-end already. But Will hadn’t. That’s what I’d have to keep thinking: what did Will see? Unless he really was just teasing me, and this was all a big waste of our time. He hadn’t looked like he was teasing me.

I breathed in the jasmine-tinged sea air and leaned back on my elbows. Regardless of what he said on the doorstep at who-knows-what-time, Will’s legacy was – without a doubt – that he’d reconciled me and Emma. Judging by what he’d said, I was either going to have to support Emma, or she’d need to be there for me. If he’d been just a little more specific, though, then there wouldn’t be any mystery at all, and we could get on with our lives in peace.

But, I thought bitterly, where would the fun be in that?

***

On the way home I stopped in front of what had been the Brindleys’ house. The outside still looked as it had done before they moved in, though admittedly the statues seemed a little cleaner – as if someone had determinedly begun to scour them, but then realised it was futile. I don’t think I’d ever be able to separate the house from my memory of Will and his parents, but things move on. We grow older; we grow tougher. How long until I became as cold and stone-skinned as the garden statues? But that’s just part of living life: you shut things out until you can deal with what’s left.

I had half a mind to go and see if the door was locked; to see if I could go inside; to see if Will might still be there. But of course it would be locked – I didn’t know what I was thinking. I instead returned to my own house. I opened the door, and saw my house as I’d never seen it before. Nothing had changed, but it felt like a veil had been lifted off from my eyes. I saw the mould spreading unhindered in the corners; I noticed my breath being slightly visible in the air. For the past months I’d been living in a memory, where everything was fresh, clean and golden. But it was not. It was grey.

Alf’s bed had not been moved since he died. His toys still lay in their dirty, but neat, order. Some of his hairs were still there – I guess that said a lot about Dad’s cleanliness. I missed Alf. He was old, but he didn’t seem old enough to die. Then again, neither had Mother.

I wondered if I was as mad as the librarian, and I just hadn’t realised it yet. Dragons? Really? I’d sunk so deep into my own mind and my own thoughts that I’d earnestly begun to believe in something that’s biologically-impossible, just like Will had said long ago. I slumped down into a chair and shivered. I wished this stoniness would come on sooner, if it kept me any warmer. Had I judged anyone correctly, ever? Well, I knew Roo was completely honest with me – he held no secrets, and nor could he impart mine: after all, he had no muscles for speaking. But I’d misjudged Mr. Stevens; Callow; the librarian, and even Miss Catherine had seemed agreeable enough when I’d talked to her. She certainly hadn’t been a witch, as was the hearsay among the schoolchildren.

I hugged Roo in tightly. So maybe I wasn’t manly or tough, carrying a teddy bear around all the time, but he was all I really had left, so I didn’t care. Him and Dad. I could trust no-one else, aside from maybe Emma, but who could say how she’d turn out? She could very easily be hiding something from me, and I’d never know – just like Callow.

“Oh, hey Tom,” said Dad, wandering through, “how’s your morning been?”

I made a vague noise in response, and he chuckled.

“Yeah, it’s a bit cold outside, isn’t it? I’ll go make some lunch.”

He went back into the kitchen, but I stayed sitting there, thinking. Regardless of how I felt, that crime needed to be solved. An unsolved mystery is like—that simile was beginning to wear a little thin. I grimaced in the cold, and set my mind to thinking up a list of potential criminals. My gut instinct was Mr. Garter, but this was more due to his permanent frown and general uneasiness than actual evidence.

Dad returned with some inexpertly-made sandwiches and set them down on the table before sitting down himself.

“Dad?”

“Yes?” he said, with a sandwich halfway to his mouth.

“Do you remember when the school was broken into?”

“Yes, vaguely.”

“And when Bloody Dark burned down?”

“Yes.”

“And when Councillor Bluck disappeared?”

“Again, yes. Why?”

“I think they’re all connected.”

Dad put his sandwich down and suddenly became very solemn. I didn’t know why he was taking this so seriously, it didn’t really have anything to do with him.

“So,” he said, “you think the same person committed all of those crimes?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“It was that Callow – he was a disturbed and destructive person, and thank goodness he’s gone now.”

“No, it can’t have been Callow.”

“Why not?”

“I knew where he was on Hallowe’en, and it wasn’t anywhere near the teachers’ storeroom.”

“Then it was Mr. Stevens. He committed all of those crimes and then quietly resigned so as not to attract any attention.”

“No, I don’t think it was Mr. Stevens. I think this involves drugs, and he hated drugs so much he’d give us a presentation about their danger every other week. That’s no exaggeration.”

“Drugs?” he said, his lips suddenly becoming very thin.

“The first crime was to finance the drugs; the second to sell them and distract Councillor Bluck, and the third to get rid of her altogether.”

“That’s preposterous.”

“It sounds perfectly plausible to me. All I need to figure out are the people who could possibly want to get involved in drugs.”

“And what kind of people would those be?”

“People in distress and without much money.”

“Callow. It must have been Callow.”

Dad stood up and went back into the kitchen, leaving his sandwich uneaten. I thought over what I had just said, and ran through my mind a list of everyone that I knew, trying to find those who fit the criteria I’d just mentioned.

The realisation hit me like a lobbed brick, and then scampered away into the shadowy recesses of my mind. I knew someone who was in financial trouble, and who had been in a really distressing situation – it was Dad. I knew someone who hated Bluck and wanted to be rid of her – it was Dad. I knew someone who had consistently tried to hide something and blame other people – it was Dad.

But it couldn’t be Dad. It couldn’t be him.

***

“But it can’t be him!” I said, desperately trying to keep my brain within the confines of my skull.

“Calm down,” Emma said, “just because he fits with what we think doesn’t mean that it’s him.”

My head throbbed. If Dad was a single piece in the jigsaw of this mystery, then his shape fit into it perfectly. But my mind saw that piece as the wrong colour. We’d been in trouble when Mother died, and then suddenly we were surviving. At the same time, Dad began to mess around with the kitchen cupboard. It made me feel sick to think that drugs may have been there all of the time, and they might well still be there.

That hissing noise the thief made on Hallowe’en night: that wasn’t shock at being discovered, but horror that it was me, that I might realise it was him in the darkness, that he was committing a crime in front of his son. Perhaps that’s why the thief was so quick to run away, even though he could have easily dealt with two schoolchildren. And when he’d taken me to that meeting with the councillors – he’d so vehemently opposed what Bluck was proposing because he would have been exposed. So he figured out that burning down Bloody Dark would not only distract Bluck but would also line his pockets.

I remembered that morning, when all of Ramsley came out to see the blaze. There stood Dad, above the rest, delivering a rabble-rousing speech against Bluck. Against her “purposeless ideals” for combatting the “apparent ‘drug problem’”. And all the while he knew, he knew that he was the drug problem. But when Bluck did not give in, he decided to kidnap her. Trap her in Cliffmouth – not murder her, but make sure she was out of the way; he’d break her, and then she couldn’t oppose him.

Was this really what Dad was like? This wasn’t the Dad I knew, but everything was so easily slotting into place. And just now he’d been so abrasive, and so adamant that Callow was responsible for all of those crimes, when that man had an iron-cast alibi, however sick it was.

“I don’t want to believe it’s him.”

“Of course you don’t. Nor should you, not straight away.”

“Everything fits! But what would I do? I can’t send my own Dad to jail. I betray the person who has helped me and supported me all of my life, not least in the past few months. No, it can’t be him. I won’t believe it’s him.”

“Well, Tom,” said Emma, sighing, “‘justice or happiness’? They are so often thought to be the same. But not here.”

“I won’t do anything until there’s proof,” I said resolutely, “and it had better be absolute proof.”

“Can you think of anything like that?”

“No.”

“Ah.”

We sat in silence, staring out at the waves, shining in the afternoon sun. Every day since Mother died flashed through my head, falling through my grasp and laughing at me. Now that I thought about it, there were many times that Dad had been irrational, and maybe even paranoid. But I’d put these down to stress from having to deal with so much so suddenly. Just like that time when I’d wanted to take Alf to the vet. He’d been so dismissive, without even giving it a second thought. Why would he be like that?

Only earlier I’d thought that Alf was not old enough to die. He’d grown very ill very quickly; it was probably that Dad didn’t want to put me through a long process of Alf slowly degenerating – he wanted to protect me from seeing Alf wither away to nothing. Or maybe Dad was somehow responsible.

I stared up at the tree on the hill, beneath which Alf was buried. Why did we have to go so far out to bury him? Dad had said it needed to be somewhere special, that only we knew about. Why the secrecy?

“You’re thinking about Alf, aren’t you?” said Emma, linking her arm with mine.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I thought the reason for burying him somewhere far away was so that only Dad and I could go and see him – so that it would be a quiet place, just for us to remember.”

“And?”

“And now I’m beginning to think there was a much darker motive.”

***

And so we began our journey. We walked along the seafront, and I looked down at the beach where Alf had loved to play. He’d get soaking wet and covered in sand, and his joints would be stiff the next morning, but he loved it. We walked beyond Outer Ramsley and into the woodland, where we used to take him for walks. He’d always find something disgusting to eat, and would get his lead caught around trees and all sorts. We walked right up to the top of the woodland, to the point at which we could see all of Ramsley. Bloody Dark was still nothing more than a charred mess; I could see the former site of the library; I could see our house, right at the other side of town.

“By that tree,” I said, pointing, “that’s where we buried him.”

It was in full, apple blossom bloom – after all, it we were getting into the heart of spring –and it was easily visibly from the town below. I’d looked up and remembered Alf many times. My pet, my friend, and my shoulder to cry on.

I held the spade in my hand: the same spade that had first moved the earth, and now was to do it again. I shook with fear and faintness. I was losing my mind. I knew I was losing my mind. I was standing at the top of a hill, ready to unearth Alf, and searching for proof to incriminate my own father. Emma was with me, but even her influence could not stand up to the dense, black cloud of the task ahead.

I stumbled forward, and thrust the spade into the ground. I rested my foot on the head and drove it down into the earth. I had begun.  With each lump of mud I tossed aside the black lights on my eyes grew more intense and more dizzying. I did not turn to look at Emma, though I imagined she had an expression of concern – if I saw that, I’d be sure to faint or vomit or both. Thrust into the ground; foot on the head and drive; dig up and toss. Thrust; drive; dig; toss. Thrust; drive; dig; toss.

I pushed down again, and heard the grating noise of the metal head on bone. It slid between ribs, and it felt as if the spade would be swallowed up completely. I stepped back quickly, I slid, I fell. The grave seemed to be dragging me in, and I clawed at the ground, but found only mud in my hands. Emma screamed and ran over, grabbing my arms and pulling back with all her weight. We fell back on the grass and lay there, shaking.

“You’re ok, Tom, you’re ok.”

“Am I?”

“I think so.”

“Are you?”

“As far as I can tell, yes.”

We stood up slowly, and – hands tightly clasped around each other’s wrists – looked over the edge of the grave.

There lay the decomposing body of Alf, half-unearthed and only half there to start with. The veins of his ears were splayed and rotting; his lower jaw had been almost entirely reduced to bone, save for some fleshy strips occasionally still bearing fur. Maggots and worms and all manner of disgusting creatures slimed through his side and his eye sockets, devoid of their dark spheres. A stench climbed out of the grave with wasted hands of rotting flesh, and slathered us with its perfume.

I did not cry, I did not faint. I did not vomit, though I felt like I was going to at every passing moment. I simply looked down at the decaying corpse of my greatest companion, and looked at its unnatural cargo, which had also become the home of the mud creatures. Scattered around Alf was a fine, white powder. Beside him, there were a few clear, plastic bags of the same substance.

“Drugs?” said Emma.

“Drugs.” I answered, “They must have been put here by someone who saw us bury Alf. That must be the reason why they’re here.”

“No, Tom. I don’t think we can deny it any longer.”

“This isn’t how my life was supposed to turn out. If Fate intended for me to be standing on a hill, having unearthed a rotting corpse, and realising my Dad is a criminal, then it’s far more than a cruel mistress.”

I held her, though really she was holding me. I stared out across Ramsley, and further, and into the void beyond.

Dragons? Dragons.: Chapters 14 and 15

Chapter 14

 

I ran. Downstairs; out through the door; along the street. No longer was I in the warm, cosy hypnosis of the indoors, but motivated by a chilling determination. It was like someone had stabbed me in the spine with an icicle: a shock that flung my legs out in front of me. Emma’s parents were standing in their garden, staring down the street, paralysed with horror. I paid them no heed and continued running, slipping every few steps, and forcing down the growing pains in my chest.

I ran. I ran and ran and ran. My heart pounded; the blood pumped through my ears, forming an exhausting percussion with my feet. I believed that, if I tried hard enough, I could catch up with the car. I could stop it. I could rescue Emma. If I just believed hard enough, then all of this would come true. But I gradually came to realise that this was nothing more than a foolish dream, and the pain of the running hit me like a slammed door. I slowed to a jog. I walked. I stopped.

The snow was falling thick and fast, as if someone had upended a huge bowl of porridge. The road had merged with the pavement, and the Christmas lights had become nothing more than a glimmer within the fledgling tundra. Callow would be far off by now. Perhaps he’d travel to the south and cross the border; maybe he’d try to take a flight halfway around the world. It wouldn’t be easy – especially without Emma’s passport – but I knew Callow would find a way. He was that kind of man. Maybe he’d forge documents. Or he could just hide out somewhere within the country, and nobody would ever know; he’d change his name, get a new job. Then he’d be someone else: another bumbling, innocent-looking man.

I looked around, trying to figure out where I’d ended up. The flurries of snow made everything look vaguely similar, hiding cars and giving every garden a small hedgerow. I stumbled over to the nearest structure, eager to get under its porch as soon as possible. I dived through the worsening weather and stared up at the building before me.

It was the library.

I peered inside and, yes, there was the old man sitting at his desk, scribbling away at his piece of paper and utterly disconnected from reality. I quietly opened the door and stepped inside, shaking most of the snow off my shoulders.

“Hello, boy.” he said, without looking up.

“Hello.” I replied.

There was silence for the next few minutes, save for the scrawling noise of the old man’s pen. He seemed to write something, pause, and then sigh angrily before crossing out what he’d just put down. Maybe he was practising his calligraphy. The library itself was much the same as when I had first seen it – piles of books strewn everywhere, teetering dangerously near to candles sitting contentedly on the floor. Most days were probably the same for the librarian, and most days were probably nights, given that he appeared to live nowhere else but in his box.

“Emma’s been abducted.” I said, surprised by the steadiness of my tone.

“Ah, your lady friend. By whom?”

“Mr. Callow.”

“Ah.”

“You don’t know who that is, do you?”

“Haven’t the foggiest,” he said flatly, and still not looking up, “but I think I shouldn’t want to know him.”

“I don’t know what to do. He seems to have just driven away into the snowstorm; there’s no chance of catching him now.”

“With Emma in the car?”

“Yes.”

“Was she wearing a seatbelt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then we must set out to rescue her at once.”

“How could we? He’ll be long gone by now.”

“Well,” said the old man, gently laying his pen on the desk, parallel to the paper, “you’re right in that sense: he’d be miles and miles away. That is, if he intended to leave.”

“What do you mean?”

“If this Callow wants to leave the country, then he’ll need your lady friend’s passport, is that not so?”

“Well—”

“…in which case, he shall need to retrieve it. Of course, you could not do such a thing if you were miles and miles away. I think he will return.”

“And what if he moves to a different part of the country? We’ll be sitting here waiting for something that will never come.”

“Which is why, at the same time, we mount a search of the surrounding area, and keep in touch with nearby towns. I have connections.”

It was an odd thing to hear the librarian say: a famous recluse – well, aside from the Vernal Order – had ‘connections’? Maybe he channelled the spirits of his deceased ancestors, or something like that.

“How do you keep in touch with these connections?” I said, looking around at a building straight out of the nineteenth century.

“There’s a cauldron on the roof I use to create fire signals.”

“Really?”

“Of course not,” he snapped, “I use a phone like everyone else.”

Very much put in my place, I waited for the librarian’s plan of action – he had no idea who Callow was, and yet he was coming up with greater ideas than me. But for a while he returned to his piece of paper, scribbling away, with a frightening focus in his eyes, even more frightening considering his snake-fang haircut.

“I will mobilise the Vernal Order,” he said, still scribbling, “I will tell them to search for the car and your lady friend, and for this Callow.”

“And what should I do in the meantime?”

“Can’t you think for yourself, boy?”

He paused in the act of jotting, and looked up at me, occasionally shifting his focus between my eyes.

“No,” he said, returning to his work, “perhaps not.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Talk to the council, and involve the police, obviously. It would be foolish for us to try to tackle this ourselves.”

“And sending some children to investigate a potential dragon nest isn’t foolish?”

“You look perfectly well to me. Besides, if you hadn’t explored that cave you wouldn’t have rescued Councillor Bluck, and then you wouldn’t have had a mayor to help you now. You can thank me later.”

“But—”

“Goodbye, boy.”

And the conversation was over. The old man took no notice of my protests, and even physically shaking him seemed to have no effect. He was a stubborn old fellow. I left the library, back out into the snowstorm, and I waded through the streets. I had to go to the town hall. As much as I hated the idea, I had to see Bluck. I needed her help.

***

The town hall seemed to care little for the snow. It almost seemed to lightly brush it off its shoulders every once in a while, even though it had no arms and no mind. But I had certainly seen stranger things. The entrance hall murmured and sweated – it was full of people asking the council what they were going to do about the sudden onslaught of snow. Apparently they had seen no snow ploughs, and one person said that all of the grit bins were still full to the brim: he’d checked every one in Ramsley himself.

Forced to contend with this – the largest case of civil unrest in Ramsley’s history – were the two burly security guards. The expressions they wore said that this sort of thing was not in their contract; all they were getting paid to do was to stand in the doorway all day and block access. Fortunately, the rotundity of their bellies left a considerable gap between their legs, through which I scurried without hesitation. There were advantages and disadvantages of being a child – having to walk under gelatinous flab was certainly in the latter category.

Now where was that conference room? Second door… second door on the left. The door was open again, and all of the councillors – apart from Dad – were already sitting there, as if they’d never left. Really, the only person I knew had left since my last visit was Bluck, who had procured a more elaborate chair, befitting of her position. The current discussion stopped as I walked in. They turned around and regarded me with an air of fascination, frustration and – so it seemed – fear. Bluck must have told them of our encounter, probably quaking with fright.

“Ah, it’s the child again.” she said, toeing the line between cordiality and sneering.

The other councillors seemed to rewind their cassette tapes in an attempt to remember me, but appeared unsuccessful. It must have been difficult to remember everyone, given that they met so many people each day – namely each other.

“How did you get through?” she continued.

“I ran.”

“You ran?”

“Yes.”

“Elaborate.”

“I ran quickly.”

Bluck rolled her eyes, and began to slowly tap the desk with her pen, not-so-subtly indicating that she had much important business to get on with.

“Mayor Bluck,” I said with determination, “I am here to report the kidnapping of my friend, Emma.”

“By dragon, I assume?”

The councillors burst into laughter, which lasted for far longer than the comment deserved. I simply stood there, resolute. I wasn’t going to let them bully me out of finding Emma.

“No, by Mr. Callow.”

A few of the councillors began to laugh again, but quickly trailed off, realising their mistake. Bluck’s brow furrowed. I assumed she was trying to figure out whether I was lying, as the tapping of her pen slowed even further while she stared at me, searching for any nervous twitch or tell-tale shiftiness.

“You aren’t lying.”

“No, Mayor Bluck.”

“That wasn’t a question. Here’s one, though: what happened?”

I told them the full story, right from when I was looking out of the window, to talking to the librarian, and ending here. As I kept talking, the lines on Bluck’s forehead seemed to become more pronounced, and she bit her lip in concentration. There was a silence for a while after I’d finished, presumably time for Bluck to consider what I’d said. She put her pen down and stared at it for a few moments, before looking back up at me.

“We must get to this at once, despite the weather. Nay, the weather should be an advantage: driving in such heavy snow is highly dangerous, if it’s even possible.”

I thought back to Callow’s car: it was a battered old hatchback – certainly no four-wheel-drive, and almost certain to encounter some problems in this kind of weather. The councillors stood as one and marched out of the room. They were immediately heckled by the crowd in the entrance hall, but the protesting residents obediently fell silent when Bluck raised her hand.

“Townspeople of Ramsley, I have been informed that a young girl has been kidnapped by a certain Mr. Callow. For now, we must forget the issue of the heavy snow and focus our efforts on finding Emma. Please search everywhere in the town. Meanwhile, myself, the boy and you two—” here she pointed to the security guards, “—will take the main road out of Ramsley. Hopefully the terrible weather will allow us to catch up.”

I didn’t know whose car it was, but this was certainly better than Callow’s beaten-up hatchback – it had considerable ground clearance, and was apparently fitted with winter tyres. If we couldn’t catch up to Callow in this, then I would eat my hat. If I had one, that is.

The ‘main road’ out of Ramsley wasn’t much of a road – it was, at best, a stereotypical country lane. With all of the snow, it had now become a part of the fields. The snow hadn’t stopped, and nor did it show any sign of slowing down.  The windscreen wipers were in overdrive, and as a result the view was like watching a film with every other frame removed. We’d driven through Ramsley Wood, and were now travelling through the white sheet of meadows. Everything looked calm and beautiful, and it was only the purpose of our journey that darkened the atmosphere.

We drove for some miles before entering into another forest, this time far gloomier and quieter – night was setting in, making every shadow contain an ambush, and every tree a criminal.

The headlights shone on a car in front. It was Callow’s hatchback. Peering into the darkness, I could see the man himself hastily shovelling snow away from his car. He must have gotten stuck. I could see nothing of Emma, and my heart began to pound again. What had he done with her? Was she alright?

The tall, wiry frame of Callow stopped mid-shovel and looked up. Seeing the car, he smiled and was about to make way over, probably to ask for help in getting his car moving. Then he saw its passengers, and quickly jumped back, scrambling around in his car, trying to find some kind of weapon. We slowly got out of our vehicle and closed the doors behind us. Callow re-emerged – without so much as a bat of some kind, and smiled at me.

“Ah, hello, Tom.”

“Good evening, Mr. Callow.”

“I appear to have gotten into some trouble with my car. Would you mind giving me a hand?”

He looked around at the people accompanying me.

“Ah, Councillor Bluck and two guests. What a pleasure this is! What brings you out here?”

“Mr. Callow,” I said, trying to stay composed, “we know Emma is in your car. We’ve come to arrest you for kidnapping her.”

“I’ve done no such thing.”

The security guards took a step forward, and Callow darted inside the car. He pulled Emma out as carefully as he’d thrown her in. I caught her eye and immediately regretted doing so: she was as pale as the surrounding snow, and her eyes screamed with a burning fear. Callow held her by the neck and began to take a few paces backwards.

“If you come closer, then bad things will happen.”

He smiled, but not in a deranged way: he was very much in control of his mind, and he was satisfied that he had won this encounter. The night was completely silent out here – there wasn’t a house for miles around, and all that could be heard was the quiet trembling of Emma’s breathing. I stepped forward. Callow stepped back. The security guards stepped forward. Callow took another step back.

Then the night erupted into a cacophony of chanting and wailing and shouting. Callow looked around into the shadows of the trees, trying to find the source of the all-encompassing sound – it was the Vernal Order. The security guards seized their chance and rushed him, pushing him to the ground. I ran over to Emma and flung my arms around her, asking if she was hurt and saying that it was alright now and she just needed to take deep breaths.

Callow struggled and wriggled free of his captors, clawing his way along the ground before standing up and sprinting off into the darkness. The security guards attempted to make chase, but they had not the build of runners. That was the last I would see of Callow: a tall, thin man in shadow, running off into the distance. That was the last anyone would see of him in Ramsley.

I asked no serious questions of Emma – it was clear that she was far too shaken up to say anything, and so we went back to the car, back to Ramsley, and back home.

***

Emma stayed inside for almost a week. She would see no-one, not even briefly. She accepted meals, and ate most of them, but other than an exchange at her bedroom door she was seldom seen, and said nothing to anyone.

There was a knock on my door. I answered it to find Emma’s father standing on the doorstep, trying to force a smile onto his face. No doubt they felt guilty – they’d been pretty much powerless when Emma had been kidnapped, and so had been forced to wait for news. Every moment since her abduction must have passed as slowly as when I’d confronted Callow in the forest. He gently cleared his throat and breathed deeply.

“Thank you for bringing Emma back. We were so worried. Thank you.”

I nodded in response. I deserved no thanks: I’d been a bystander in every part of the kidnapping. If anything, I might have hindered the rescuing by acting too boldly. He cleared his throat again before continuing.

“She would like to see you.”

“Has she talked to you?”

“No, she just gave me a note saying I should get you.”

I shifted uneasily in the doorway. Surely she’d want to talk to her parents first? But I was glad of any opportunity to see her, so I nodded again and followed him back to his house. I had previously gone no further than her doorstep, on the night of Hallowe’en, but Emma’s house was as I had expected it to be. It was clean and agreeable, but nothing was of particular interest. Her father gestured towards the stairs and I climbed them, trying to be as quiet as possible.

I knocked on her bedroom door, and at first it opened just a fraction, before opening the whole way. Emma was a mess. Her hair was tangled, her eyes were red, and there were bruises on her face. She walked to her bed and sat on it. I shut the door behind me and sat beside her, staring at the wall, unsure of what to say.

“How are you?” I said uncertainly.

“Not bad,” she said, smiling bitterly, “though I’ve been better.”

We sat in further silence. I think she was just glad of the company, having forced herself to be alone for so long.

“Emma,” I began, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand why Callow changed.”

“No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head, “he didn’t change. He was like that all along.”

“But he was so kind and placid until he…”

“It started long before then. A very long time before then.”

My mind was a confusing, swirling mass of thoughts. What was she talking about?

“Tom,” she said, looking directly at me, “Mr. Callow, he… he used to…”

I realised. The thoughts all lined up.

“It started on Hallowe’en night,” she continued, “when I got lost in the corridors. He was there, searching for the source of the disturbance, and he found me. He grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me into a room and he raped me. He raped me, Tom.”

Emma voice was as steady and melodic as ever, but tears were running down her nose and off her chin, and her dress was already damp from the crying.

“Then he manipulated me. He said that if I didn’t come back to him, he’d hurt me. He’d hurt my parents. He’d hurt you and Will. I wasn’t having extra lessons, those were just a façade so he could—so he could use me.”

I put my arm around her and drew her in close. She rested her head against my chest and hers tears dropped onto my shirt. But I didn’t mind.

“Then one day, that day, he knocked at the door, and he took me. I don’t know where we were going to go, but he hit me if I screamed.”

She showed me the bruises on her face.

“You were always obsessed with searching for dragons. I’d already found mine.”

I held her tightly, and she cried more. I took Roo out of my pocket and silently handed him to her to hold. She smiled a little, and sniffed.

“You never let anyone else hold him.”

“You’re an exception.”

She looked up at me and smiled. And there it was. The intensity of her eyes, her jasmine scent, her beautiful smile. She stared at me, and I stared back. I saw the realisation dawn on her face. She leaned in closer, and my heart was bursting in my chest. She tilted her head—

“No,” I whispered, drawing away, “I can’t do this to you.”

I gently took Roo from her hands and left the room, quietly closing the door behind me. There was a time when I would have given anything to kiss Emma.

There was a time that I’d believed in dragons.


 

Chapter 15

 

Slush coated the ground. Snow never lasted long in Ramsley – it was white and pure at the moment it fell, but within days it had been churned into a muddy brown colour. Ice still clung to the pavements, always in unexpected places, but generally spring was rearing its new-born head and blinking hard at the harsh sunlight of winter. The only tangible effect of this change, however, was that Miss Catherine now spent her days repopulating her garden, rather than grumbling about it being too cold for her flowers. Ramsley seafront was saved from earache, and had the bonus of Miss Catherine’s beautiful garden being just around the corner.

Emma and I were on speaking terms, but on the condition that we blocked that moment out of our minds. Neither of us was successful: the fidgeting fingers and looking at the ground proved that much. At least she was going outside these days. It had been a big step to take, but we’d supported her. Word had gotten out in the entire town about Callow – parents were outraged that he’d been allowed to teach their children, who were in turn quite confused. Apparently Mr. Stevens was on the brink of resigning. I didn’t want him to go, but public pressure was mounting: even though Callow had deceived everyone, someone had to be blamed. Evidently that person was going to be the headmaster.

It was a sad day when Mr. Stevens did resign. There were no huge celebrations of his effort, or lavish leaving gifts, but there had been queues snaking through every corridor to get into his office. I queued too, though it was long after normal school hours had ended before I got to see him. He gestured to the sofa beside his desk, and I sat.

“Mr. Stevens, we’ve had our differences, haven’t we?”

“Naturally, Tom.  The headmaster has his differences with most – if not every – student, to some degree. It is a sad and perhaps lonely role.”

“But I want to thank you. For maintaining the school; keeping everything on track, and – most of all –offering me help when I needed it. I didn’t exactly accept it, but your support was important to me.”

“Eloquently put, Tom. And to think that I’ve had concerns with your English ability.”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “people make mistakes, and they endure the consequences. The bad part is when you’re forced to take the consequences without having made a mistake.”

I looked him straight in the eye, and he stared back, unwavering. He’d always been like that, but this time it was more solemn than disciplinary. Maybe Mr. Stevens would live the rest of his life haunted by Callow. He didn’t deserve such a punishment – he didn’t deserve any punishment. But someone had to be blamed.

“Biscuit?” he said wistfully. I took one without hesitation.

It was late evening before Mr. Stevens packed his leather satchel and left the school building for the final time. We were all waiting at the school gates, and parted like leaves caught in a breeze as he approached. Again, there was no applause or jeering or any noise at all. We stood as silent mourners, watching him walk out through the gate and into Ramsley.

***

Emma and I were sitting on the beach together, with Will deliberately placed between us. The spring sunshine was trying really, really hard, but winter was by no means ready to relinquish its power just yet. And so the beach was filled with sea fret once more, but at least you could see through this one fairly easily. We were not talking: it was too cold to talk. We were embraced by the fog’s chilling tendrils, and shivered as one. I longed to hold Emma’s body against mine, but – literally – Will had come between us. I’m not sure either of us was comfortable talking to the other, but we had to preserve the friendship.  Maybe we’d return to that moment in the future. Maybe not.

“So,” I said, to the world at large, “Mr. Stevens has resigned.”

“Yes.” said Will, “He will be missed.”

“I never thought I would miss him, but I do. It’s a strange feeling.”

“I guess this means that we may never find out what happened on that Hallowe’en.”

“Not unless we investigate it ourselves.”

“Are we going to investigate it ourselves?”

“Of course.”

Emma sighed and shuffled her feet. She tried to disguise it. I pretended I hadn’t noticed it.

“We aren’t looking for dragons, are we?”

“No,” I said, “those days are over. There are better explanations than the imaginary – or, at least, there should be.”

I had experienced dark, snow-filled woods; I’d endured caves more dangerous than an angry bear; I’d touched Miss Catherine’s front door, but nothing scared me as much as the imposing face of the school. It had been my source of dread for years, an ever-flowing fountain of ‘F’ grades, and yet here I was again. I had come to unravel its deepest mystery. By which I meant I was going to snoop around a bit and see what happened. At least there wasn’t going to be any major consequence with Mr. Stevens gone – there was no way Mr. Garter could catch me, even if he had a car. He always had to squeeze himself in, and I’d already be away into the alleyways by the time he’d gotten around to starting the engine.

The gates were unlocked, and so were the main doors. Typical – the teachers had left Mr. Stevens’ role to Mr. Stevens, when he wasn’t even getting paid for it any more. At least it was light now, unlike that night back in October. We couldn’t see a thing, and that’s why we lost Emma. Though we probably could have stopped that, if we’d just been more careful. So it was my fault that everything had happened. I stopped for a few moments: the others walked on, not noticing that I was rooted to the spot. I’d never considered it like that. And then she’d put her absolute trust in me, even though I’d indirectly caused the very trauma she described. But you can’t live on the past, blaming yourself for everything. You have to force yourself through. That’s how you succeed in life, I suppose.

I ran to catch up to Emma and Will. They hadn’t even noticed that I’d gone, and jumped a little at the sound of my feet. They seemed very embarrassed.

“What are we even looking for?” said Will, hastily trying to change the subject.

“I don’t know. Some way that this wasn’t caused by a dragon, I guess.”

“So you’re just flipping the October search on its head. You’re just adding a negative.”

“That’s how life works. If something doesn’t go well, do it the other way around.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think of batteries.”

“That’s deep,” he said, as realisation dawned on his face – sincere or insincere, I couldn’t tell, “very deep.”

We clattered into the hall. There was no need to be stealthy now – no-one would be around except the janitor, who’d probably assume we were just some strange after-school club. Detectives’ Club.

“Well,” said Will, “let’s try to re-enact the scene as closely as possible. Everybody get to the positions they were in just as the lights went out.”

Will was intelligent – too intelligent. He must have observed what Emma and I were like usually, and how we were acting around each other now, and figured out the bits in-between. But I stored the black looks away for another time, and watched Emma walk into the middle of the hall.

“Is this really necessary?” I said.

“Of course,” he answered, smiling and subtly raising an eyebrow, “Old Cudgers is at it all the time.”

I joined Emma with such trepidation that I wouldn’t be able to spell trepidation.

“Well?” she said quietly.

“‘Well’ what?”

“Put your hands around my waist like you did on Hallowe’en.”

I gingerly reached out and touched her hips, at arm’s length. She shuffled closer and smiled. Her scent wafted onto me. I smelled jasmine; I was jasmine.

“Alright,” said Will, folding his arms, “now sway.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“We need to recreate the scene!” he insisted, comically throwing his arms around. He was enjoying this.

“Just do it.” said Emma.

We moved, side to side. There was only the three of us, and it was light outside, and we were in normal clothes, but with every passing beat it felt like we were getting closer to Hallowe’en. Will must have been right: it was working. Any moment now I expected the lights to go out, even though they were already switched off. I expected a crash on the roof, and the sound of talons just above the ceiling.

“Alright, now do it looking at me.”

I obeyed. Her eyes, the same cerulean blue as they always had been, rummaged through my soul like a historian with a filing cabinet. I was getting drawn in again. It was just like that evening, sat on her bed, but it was like Hallowe’en too. It was both, and yet so much more.

“Aha!” Will shouted dramatically, bringing us out of our shared reverie, “I’ve got it!”

“Really?”

“Not at all,” he said, smirking, “let’s keep searching.”

There was little to be found within the school building: even in the teachers’ storeroom, little was left behind. Everything had been re-ordered and tidied; what had been stolen had been considered lost. But there was one thing we hadn’t yet considered.

“The thief presumably entered through the window,” I said, “otherwise we would have seen him.”

“And he definitely left through the window: we saw that much, at least.”

“But there’s no way to get to that window: the cliff raising it above the beach is too high and too crumbling to climb. The building itself cuts off any other path back there.”

“There is a way to get there,” said Emma, slowly.

“Which way is that?”

“Over the roof.”

I stopped mid-breath. That was it. She’d figured it out. That wasn’t a dragon landing on the roof, it was clambering that echoed through the hall, making it sound far louder than it actually was. That accounted for the rasping noises too – it could have been as little as the scuffing of shoes on the roof.

“But what about the lights?” I said, not so much critically as eager to know the answer, “And what about the screeching?”

“I suppose we’ll have to get onto the roof for that.”

“What? Are you crazy?”

“Says the person who led us into a tidal cave.”

“Just because I’m crazy it doesn’t mean you should be.”

“It’s more fun that way.”

Will held the window open for us as we climbed out, and we did the same for him. No-one ever came here – the grass had practically become a jungle, and much of the ground was falling away at the cliff edge. How long would it be until the school building became unstable? Was anyone even paying attention to the erosion? You’d think the Geography teachers would know about it, but apparently they didn’t. I peered over the edge, testing the ground beneath my feet before I put any weight on it. The thief had leapt off here and onto the beach. It was certainly a long way down. I hurried back to Emma and Will: sliding off and breaking a leg wouldn’t help the investigation.

If we’d had an audience for climbing onto the roof, then no doubt we’d immediately be spotted by talent scouts and hired as an acrobatic team. Admittedly there were a few shoe-in-face moments, but getting onto the roof was less difficult than I’d imagined. The roof of the school building was unlike your usual building – every room had an individual roof, which together looked like a rippling quilt, but greyer. Every step we took reverberated through the room on which we stood – in fact, I was surprised we didn’t hear more banging and thudding on Hallowe’en night. We climbed up onto the roof of the hall – right above where we had been only a short while. In the middle of the roof was a great tangle of wires and machinery, which seemed more suited to aviation than education.

“Ah,” said Will, “of course.”

“Of course what? Of course what?”

“Solar panels. They’re always rambling on about how ‘green’ the school is—”

“It certainly is. Green with mould.”

“—and it’s because of these things. They store power from the sun, and keep it in this power box overnight.”

He pointed to a large machine in the middle of the electrical spaghetti.

“This wire comes from that panel; this one from that one; that one from the one over there. And this is all collected and sent out through this output, which is then split further down the line.”

“I think the relevant information there is that there’s only one output, right?”

“Yep. This wire here.”

“That looks like it could be very easily cut.”

“Ah.”

It seemed that we were following the criminal in reverse order, though we hadn’t jumped up a cliff backwards. All he did was climb up here and cut the power, and in the ensuing panic carried out the deed. Simple, really: no dragons needed. This was a lot more satisfying than dragon-hunting too, since my head hadn’t yet been bitten off. We didn’t even need to find where the thief had climbed up – there were many places an adult could have scaled the wall without trouble, and even stepped onto the roof from some parts of the school building.

“But there’s one more question that needs to be answered.”

“What’s that?”

“Who dunnit?”

“What?”

“‘Who did it?’” I said, sighing.

“Oh. Dunno.”

***

I sat in my room, feeling the warmth of the evening sun glance off the top of my head. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, deep in thought. You could almost say I was meditating, though I wasn’t. I was just thinking very hard. I was thinking about dragons. Alright, this wasn’t anything new, but I’d never thought about dragons in this way before. It was only the events of the day that had made me consider them like this. I guess I was more thinking about supernatural things in general.

I’d believed in dragons. This wasn’t a strange, half-hearted belief – I had known that dragons existed. It was just a case of finding one. But now that I knew what was going on around here, I didn’t believe in dragons any more. I was wondering why.

Things had happened in the town. Weird things. Things I couldn’t explain properly: that Hallowe’en night; Bluck disappearing; Bloody Dark burning to the ground. I knew no rational explanation, so I found an irrational one. And I wanted something exciting and magnificent to be out there. I yearned for there to be something powerful out there. So I started to believe in flying lizards that could breathe fire.

I had ‘A History of Dragons’ open in front of me. It had seemed such an informative and rousing book back then, but now it seemed like fiction. I looked at the dedication again.

To all ye dragon believers:

Do not concede.

Ha! And I’d taken comfort in that. Nothing more than an archaic call to the deluded had spurred me on. But that era was over now.  I was too old to think that dragons flitted about the skies in search of pure women and golden treasures. The real world had been thrust upon me since Callow was exposed, and I was a detective now. I was going to uncover every secret in Ramsley. In a way, I thought, I’m still a dragon slayer – I’m slowly chipping away at a phantom dragon which, for the sake of metaphor, is blocking my view of something probably quite important.

I closed ‘A History of Dragons’ with an air of solemnity, and then hesitated. I reached under my bed and drew out the tattered old copy of ‘The Bears’. For the first time, I put them on the shelf together, right next to each other. I seemed to be starting a collection of phases of my life, though ‘A History of Dragons’ was a library book.

I’d have to return it; I no longer had a use for it.

***

I stumbled through the door to find that the librarian was not alone. Black, hooded figures stared at me from somewhere within the shadows of their faces – it was the Vernal Order. I found myself stood in the centre of the circle, book in hand, feeling the tension skulking in the room. It suddenly seemed like a far more typical library.

“Err, I’ve, err, come to return a book.”

“Ah, yes. ‘A History of Dragons’, wasn’t it? A lovely book.”

“Yes. Lovely.”

I walked up to the old man’s box and lay the book on the desk. He began to casually flick through it, nodding every so often, I expected him to make a note of its return, or perhaps stamp it, or something like that. Whatever librarians actually do. But he did not: he skimmed through the pages as I wasn’t there. As if none of us were here.

“You have good timing.” he said, after a while.

“I do?”

“Yes, you certainly do.” he continued, not providing any further explanation.

I glanced around at the Vernal Order. They stared back from under their hoods – their faces consumed by a powerful darkness, which had the power to cut biscuits in half.

“Why do I have good timing?”

“Perhaps you were born with good punctuality; perhaps you were raised that way; perhaps you are simply being manipulated by Fate.”

“No,” I sighed, irritated at his pedantry, “what I mean is: why did you just say that I have good timing?”

“Because I was about to ask for all loaned books to be returned – that is, this one. This library is to close.”

I stood very still. He was joking, wasn’t he? The librarian was always making a joke, or a witty side-comment. Just like when he said… when he… yes, that time. Like that time, and many other times.

“Why would the library close?”

“The mayor would rather like to build some new houses, apparently. She would like them built along the seafront. Apparently this is a great place for those houses.”

“But she can’t do that! How could she force you out of your home?”

“Oh, no, boy. She isn’t forcing me. In fact, she offered quite a generous sum of money. A remarkable sum of money.”

“How much?”

“I don’t remember.”

The librarian had returned to his scribbling, just as he always had done. I was never going to find any more dragon blood for his crimson pen.

“And what about the Vernal Order?”

“They are disbanded after today’s meeting.”

“But why? Why can’t you meet somewhere else?”

“I’m not sure why you care, boy. You don’t even believe in dragons anymore.”

The old man was staring directly at me. If Emma’s gaze had been like a historian searching through a filing cabinet, then the librarian’s was a businessman searching for a cheque in a ball-pit. I felt myself wilting under his glare.

“I do not believe we have any more business to discuss. You shall not see me again. This meeting is concluded.”

I sat outside, quite dejected. Just as everything was becoming clearer and more rational, things I had once known were irreparably falling apart. Maybe the librarian was right, Fate was involved in this. And Fate loved his equilibrium.

I became conscious of someone sitting down next to me. It was one of the Vernal Order. Perhaps they felt even sillier than usual, now that they were wearing a black robe with no purpose. The figure threw off its hood, and I looked up into the eyes of none other than Miss Catherine. In any normal circumstances I would have run away as quickly as possible. Everybody knew about Miss Catherine – she cooked children in the oven, and had a three-and-a-half-headed dog. But I did not feel like running.

“So, you were one of the Vernal Order?”

“Yes, though that group is now consigned to history.”

“Do you believe in dragons?”

Miss Catherine laughed. It wasn’t an unpleasant laugh, not at all. She just seemed like a typical grandmother, albeit with more knowledge of the eleventh century.

“Of course I don’t. I doubt anyone in the Vernal Order did, apart from the librarian.”

“So why did you go? Why did you wear the silly black outfits?”

“I think the reason has become to gorge on my scones, but the original reason was far different. You know the librarian fairly well, don’t you? He’s quite mad.”

“Until recently I believed he was the wisest man in the world.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But perhaps his wisdom is misguided. It was skewed by an event in his life which he has never forgotten. He’s obsessed with it, and he’ll be obsessed until he dies.”

“What event was this?”

“You’ve heard him talk about Eileen, haven’t you?”

I searched the deepest recesses of my mind. Yes. I had heard him mention this Eileen before, but only once. We were leaving Bloody Dark. It was just before I met the Vernal Order for the first time, and at the time when I believed in dragons so hard that I was almost growing scales. Miss Catherine must have noticed my expression of memory, and continued.

“Eileen was his wife. They lived a happy life together – a house, a dog, satisfying and well-paying jobs. Then she fell ill, and soon she was gone. Oh, the librarian was crushed. He went mad, quite mad.”

“And he began to believe in dragons?”

Miss Catherine nodded.

“He spun some tale in his own head about how a dragon had taken her from him, and that he’d slay that dragon as soon as he laid eyes on it. And so the Vernal Order was formed. We were his team of dragon-hunters, back in the day. Obviously we’ve all aged a little since then.”

“Did you go out hunting?”

“Oh, yes. We went into the woods, into caves, everywhere. We found no dragons of course. I think we all eventually reached the conclusion that dragons don’t exist, however hard we tried to find them, but nobody wanted to leave him. We didn’t know what he’d do if he was left alone.”

“And you stayed with him for years. Every week.”

“Absolutely. And as we grew older, we did less and less. The librarian had this fanciful idea of writing a letter for Eileen, so he could give it to her when we rescued her. He wanted it exactly right. I don’t think he has it right even now.”

I realised. That was the scribbling and the scrawling. The letter he had yet to finish. Miss Catherine drew some crumpled pieces of paper from the recesses of her robe and opened them.

“I picked these up recently. He hasn’t made much progress.”

I skimmed through the papers. ‘Dear Ei’ – scribbled out. The next: ‘Dear Ei’. ‘Dear Eil’. ‘Dear Ei’. How long had he been writing? He couldn’t even bring himself to write her name. Miss Catherine sighed beside me.

“And now he’s sent us away. And we won’t see him again: he said so. I don’t know what he’ll do. I hope he doesn’t make any rash decisions.”

“I never knew any of this about him.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said, laughing, “nobody knows much at all.”

“But I thought I knew him fairly well.”

“Child, you don’t even know his name; neither do I, and now we never shall.”

Dragons? Dragons.: Chapters 12 and 13

Chapter 12

 

Open my eyes? That was out of the question: I was scared of what I might see. At worst, I’d be staring at the wrought-iron gates of the underworld, with its skeletal boatmen ferrying lost souls to pits of fire and pain. At best, it would be a sprawling metropolis made entirely of cake, but that was hardly realistic.

I groped around beside me, waiting to feel the smooth, slimy texture of bone on my palm – or, at a realistic best – the gravel of the cave incline. At any moment I was expecting to be impaled, whether by a spear-wielding demon or the talon of a dragon.  But I felt something entirely different in my hand. Wet sand clung to my fingers, before squelching down again. Alright, this didn’t rule out the underworld, but it did rule out the possibility of a gateau paradise.

“Tom?” said a distant-sounding voice.

It certainly wasn’t a demonic-sounding voice, unless the denizens of the netherworld were young, female and full of concern.

“Tom? Are you alright?” it said again, no closer.

Come to think of it, Emma might have died too, and that’s why she was here. Wet sand; salty, sea air, and Emma – it didn’t sound much like the underworld to me, but I knew it wasn’t heaven. If it was heaven, it would have been the cake paradise I’d thought about earlier.

She was shaking me now, thudding me against the sand, trying to rouse me from my supposed state of unconsciousness. One thing was for sure: Emma had never been trained in First Aid. I opened my eyes. Emma was above me, with her knees on either side of my body and her hands on my shoulders; she was apparently trying to break my skull open, with all the determination of an otter cracking a clam. I stared into her cerulean eyes and drank in her jasmine scent. Her hair was hanging over me, and it was like we had a whole world to ourselves – a world in which I got her hair stuck in my mouth.

To anyone walking along the beach, this would have been a particularly-strange sight, and perhaps could be interpreted as more than just bad First Aid. To me, it was just strange, and also fairly painful. I stared at her for a while, but she didn’t stop.

“Emma? You can stop now. I’m ok.”

“Oh, Tom!” she said dramatically, throwing her arms around me as best she could, “I thought I was going to lose you.  Luckily I managed to revive you—”

“And also give me a headache.”

“Well, then,” she said, quickly sitting up again, “I won’t save your life next time.”

“You swam down there and carried me all of the way back up?”

“Actually, that’s the interesting part,” she said, lying on the sand beside me, “neither of us saved you in that way.”

Wait, of course, Will was there too. What happened to him? Was he alright? Emma must have noticed my expression, and cut in.

“Will is fine; he’s just gone to get a doctor to see to you. We thought we’d lost you. I was a mess, but thankfully Will was there to comfort me.”

Will comforting her? I’d make that son-of-a-Brindley regret the day he ever walked this planet. And all of the days before that, too. And all of the days afterwards. I’d make him regret it.

“So,” I said, “how did I get here if neither of you brought me?”

“I don’t know; we just found you washed up on the beach, like in one of those desert island movies, except we aren’t on an island. And it isn’t uninhabited. But you know what I mean.”

“How could I get washed up here if I was trapped in the bottom of a cave?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sighing at the sunset, “maybe the dragon brought you?”

“Unless I wound up here as a result of its digestive system, then I don’t think so.”

“Then it’s a mystery; a mystery which will never be solved. But what does it matter? You’re alright, that’s the main thing.”

“An unsolved mystery is like someone leaving a socket switched on, but with nothing plugged in.”

“What do you mean?”

“In a more poetic sense, it’s a supply of potential just waiting to be used; what I mean, though, is that it really, really annoys me.”

“Well, whatever you say to me, I’m not going back in there,” she said, gesturing towards Cliffmouth, “It was traumatising.”

“That’s alright,” I said calmly, “I wasn’t thinking of going back.”

“If anyone else had said that, it would have been fine. Why do I think you have a different plan?”

Emma seemed to know me better than most people, these days. It was strange, since out of all of my friends we spent the least amount of time together – though I wished it could be more. Even when we were together, Will was usually there too, and we’d talk about more general things, rather than our relationship.

Were we in a relationship? I wasn’t really sure. It certainly felt like it sometimes. But neither of us had said we were, so I suppose we weren’t. Life would be so much easier if telepathy existed: words are such a crude way of getting a point across. I shivered. I found it difficult to believe that it was December already. It had been two months since Mother died, while it only felt like a couple of weeks. I looked up at Emma, and in the sunset everything seemed so clear. Her eyes; her nose; her mouth; her hair. She looked so much like Mother, but was even prettier. Even kinder. Even more—

“Why are you staring at me?”

I hurtled out of my trance and blinked.

“You’re so awkward,” she said, laughing.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“So, what’s your master plan? I really don’t want to hear it, and I really don’t want to take part in it, but I have a horrible feeling I won’t have much of a choice.”

“Well, we went in through the mouth in the cliff. We assumed that was the only entrance, hence why it was called Cliffmouth…”

“Oh. I see where you’re going with this. You think – since you’re here now, and there’s no way you could have just drifted up that spiralling tunnel – that there must be a second entrance somewhere.”

“Exactly.”

“Great. Now find it.”

“I will, just as soon as my legs stop being numb.”

“Your legs are numb?” she said, panicking.

“Yes. I wouldn’t worry about it; it’s probably just the coldness of the water.”

“Do you feel paralysed at all?”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works…”

As if on cue, Will came sprinting down the beach, with a doctor jogging along a little way behind him. Had the scene been in slow-motion, it may have been more effective. At normal speed, it just looked ungainly.

“Has he come around yet?” said Will.

“Yes.” I said flatly.

“He’s come around,” he announced to the doctor, who was now sweating and out of breath, “is there anything we can do?”

“Give me a bit of space for now, and that’ll do just fine.”

The doctor kneeled down, and began to prod me in various places on my body, with no apparent order or purpose. He looked into my eyes with his own, slightly-bloodshot pair. I quickly came to the conclusion that I preferred Emma’s medical expertise – at least she smelled nice. In the background, Will put his arm around Emma, who clung to him with nervousness. I’d get that son-of-a-Brindley. I’d get him.

“Extraordinary.” said the doctor, leaning back.

“What’s extraordinary? That I’m unharmed?”

“No, the extraordinary part is that you’re alive. Anything beyond that boggles the mind.”

“So I’m not paralysed?”

“As far as I can tell, no. If I find you still lying here tomorrow, then I might change my verdict. What you are, though, is very cold. If you don’t change out of those clothes then hypothermia will get you.”

I sighed with relief: at the very least, I had my legs.

“Unfortunately I can’t say the same for your friend.”

“My friend?”

The doctor nodded towards Roo, who was a short distance away. His fur was matted with seawater and sand, and his back had been sliced open against a rock somewhere: his cotton stuffing was plainly visible. But I knew he was going to be ok. He had to be ok.

We thanked the doctor, who trotted off back into Ramsley. I stood up, valuing my legs more than I had done in years. But I didn’t value the choice of legwear I’d made that morning: jeans. I picked Roo up off the sand and turned him over and over in my hands.

“He’ll be fine.” said Will, quite unconvincingly.

“He just needs to dry out and be pampered a little,” said Emma, pushing a little stuffing back into his body, “just like you.”

“I need to be pampered?”

“Well, I was more thinking of the drying out, but I guess so.”

We headed towards Ramsley again, with our backs firmly to Cliffmouth and its flooded tunnels. But I knew we’d return soon – an unsolved mystery was like a… like a… what had I said? The moment had passed.

The ground in Ramsley proper was almost-unnervingly dry, especially for somewhere right next to the sea. It had been one of those cold December days, on which the sun seems to have no warmth, and your breath creates its very own fog every time you speak. I squelched through the front door and waited for Alf to greet me. I still hadn’t managed to break my old habits, however hard I’d tried. Dad didn’t even seem to acknowledge my return until I shuffled into the living room, leaving a snail-like line behind me.

“Where’ve you been? You’re soaked!”

“Oh, am I?” I said, though the sourness of my comment was undermined by chattering teeth.

“Go have a bath, and I’ll put some fresh clothes out for you. Then we’ll talk about what silly things you’ve been getting up to.”

I did as I was told; I dared not broach the subject of Roo. What would Dad say? I’d kept Roo close to me at all times, as Dad had instructed, but I doubt he’d be pleased that the gift had been ruined. Roo-ined. Ha.

We sat downstairs in the warm, yellow light of the living room. He’d made us both cups of tea, though he’d misjudged the amount of water needed, so they were only half-full. Still, it was the effort that counted.

“So, what were you doing today?” he said, taking a sip and burning his tongue.

It occurred to me that I’d never talked to Dad about dragons. It was an obsession; they had taken over my life, and yet I’d told him nothing.

“We were exploring Cliffmouth; I think there’s a dragon there.”

“Cliffmouth?” he said, growing pale – after all, it was a very dangerous place.

“Yes. And we misjudged the tides, so we got a little wet.”

“Wait, who’s ‘we’?”

“Emma and Will.”

“Will Brindley? He led you into this? I’ll be having a word with his parents—”

“It was more that I persuaded them into coming with me.”

“And I assume you didn’t find the dragon you were looking for.”

“No, but there was a weird noise from deep in the cave, and I found some bones that looked like baby dragon bones.”

“You’re so good at pulling my leg, Tom. You really expect me to believe there’s a dragon in the bottom of a beach cave?”

Strangely, even though he was disagreeing it seemed like he believed everything I was saying – at the least, he was listening to me with a sort of morbid curiosity, though he tried to pass it off as disinterest. I decided that now would be a good time to bring the issue of Roo to his attention: we were both sitting contentedly and comfortably, and as far as I could tell there were no sharp objects to hand.

“You know when you said I should keep Roo close to me at all times?”

“Yes.” he said, his eyes narrowing just a little.

“Well, I’ve been doing that diligently ever since I got him.”

“Good.”

“Unfortunately, maybe keeping him close wasn’t such a great idea today.”

I held up Roo, his eyes still gleaming in the lamplight. He was drier now, but the split in his stitching had only been aggravated, and there was now quite a large portion of his stuffing missing. I waited for Dad to explode with anger at any moment, but it never came. Then I waited for him to simply be upset, but he never was. He was just looking at Roo, and looking at the rip in his back.

“I can fix that for you.” he said, quite calmly.

“Since when do you know how to sew?”

“Well, Tom,” he said, tapping the side of his nose and not minding the cliché, “I am a man of many talents.”

I decided not to labour the point further. If Dad could fix Roo – and without getting at all angry – then I wasn’t going to object. I went upstairs and then quickly to bed, exhausted from the exertion of the day. No doubt tomorrow would be similar. Tomorrow I would return to Cliffmouth.

Despite my tiredness, I couldn’t sleep.  It was fairly late into the night when Dad gently opened the door and presented me with Roo, who looked clean and happy. He would never again be what he’d been, but I didn’t mind so much. Dad’s attempt at sewing was a little crooked, and the thread wasn’t the right colour, but at least Roo was solid again. He was plump, and oddly heavier.

***

“You have a boat?”

“Well, that’s what this is.” said the librarian, “I don’t know how to show it any more clearly.”

“But you never go out!”

“I used to be on the water all the time in my younger days; now, not as much.”

We were standing in a shed adjoining the library – it seemed like it was purpose built to house the boat, and yet was still too small. As he jerked the tarpaulin cover off, he knocked a collection of empty tins and old wood off a shelf, but he didn’t appear to care. It wasn’t very exciting. As boats go, however, it was enthralling – the paintwork was flaking and peeling; the seats looked like they were rotting. All things considered, it didn’t seem as much of a seafaring vessel as much as an elaborate piece of driftwood. But it was our only choice.

“Can you still steer it properly and stuff?” I said, quickly realising that I was out of my depth.

“If the ‘thritis allows, then yes. What do you want this for, anyway?”

“There must be a second entrance to Cliffmouth; there has to be. And I reckon we’ll find it if we approach it by sea.”

“Well, it’s your time you’re wasting.”

“Don’t you have a library to run?”

“The books will take care of themselves for a couple of hours. They generally do.”

I decided not to follow up on this last, vague comment. The librarian didn’t often make much sense, but I would probably have feared him more if he did.

The sea seemed very teal today, though certainly leaning more towards green. It was cloudy overhead, and darker thunderclouds were beginning to roll in from the ocean. I hoped it would just pass us by, or at least wear itself out before Christmas – it’s just not right without snow, and with rain it just seems like any other day of the year. In front of us, the old man’s spindly frame was juddering as he rowed – Will had offered to take over multiple times, but the man had simply shaken his head and continued on.

Despite the clouds, it was a quaint and almost beautiful journey – the oars gracefully swept up and down, and the water was fairly calm. Then again, had it been any rougher the boat would have disintegrated entirely. You could already tell it wasn’t enjoying the strain of an adult and three children, being a one-man vessel.

The ominous sight of Cliffmouth came into view, looking even more imposing than usual in the overcast gloom. We slowly made our way around it, and I took a moment to admire the structure – I was amazed that I’d gone into something so scary so easily, and that had only been yesterday. In fact, I could well have died, and yet here I was, going back.

“Do you see anything?” the old man wheezed.

The answer: not really. The only linked between the cliff and the sea seemed to be an assortment of jagged and distinctly-uninviting rocks, with—oh!

“A cove.”

It hadn’t been visible at all until now, hidden away in the side of the cliff. It was quite plausible that you could only see it from this angle – if you kept rowing or sailing, the curved formations would soon cut off your view.  The librarian turned us around (not without a great deal of difficulty) and headed for the cove. It seemed very tidy, and almost hospitable. A post had been hammered into a gap in the rock, and a tethering rope hung loose from it, gently swaying in the breeze.

I jumped out of the boat, almost falling over on the slippery rocks: that was no different from the other entrance. I ventured further into the cave, minding my footing more carefully. There! There was the groaning again, though not as fervent as I had heard it yesterday. Will passed me a torch, and I flashed it around in the darkness. What was it hiding? I expected at any moment for the light to be reflected by slime-covered scales or gleaming eyes. I was ready to run at any moment, back out of the narrow gap through which we’d entered. There was the groaning again. I pointed my torch towards it.

The light fell on the unmistakable face of Councillor Bluck.


 

Chapter 13

 

I put my fingers to my lips, trying to stop Bluck’s piercing sobbing. There could still be a dragon in here, even though the source of the groaning had been found. I remembered the dragon bones I’d come across yesterday, sharp and fleshy-white. Surely they indicated that there was some kind of dangerous predator around here.

Bluck had been blindfolded, gagged and bound, and apparently given a wall to lean against – that was rather kind of the dragon. Then again, maybe it was so she wouldn’t drown when the tide came in: I had no idea whether rising water would leave this cavern flooded or dry.  I looked around for the main attraction of this expedition: the golden bed of the dragon. I figured there would be some kind of eerie, yellow glow emanating from its position, but the cave seemed as black and dank as ever. I followed the route of the cave, once again heading into deep gloom, but this time I was diligently watching my footing.

After only a few metres I came to the top of what seemed to be a steep incline. Kicking a loose rock from the slope, I heard it bounce between the outcrops before it plunged into some water far below. Only yesterday I’d been hanging on down there, weary from cave exploration and drenched in cold water. If I’d had the idea to approach Cliffmouth by boat first, then I would have rescued the mayor without any effort necessary. I removed Bluck’s blindfold and gag, putting my fingers to my lips, but didn’t untie her just yet.

I searched around a bit more, for secret passages and the like, but found nothing. Dragons probably weren’t geniuses when it came to hidden rooms and puzzling mechanisms. One thing was for sure – Bluck’s cavern was nowhere near large enough to hold a giant, armoured lizard; it wouldn’t be large enough even if the dragon was a master contortionist. But perhaps this was simply where the dragon kept its offspring: sheltered from the bad weather and with easy access for feeding. And then the terror wrought by the dragon had caused it to neglect its young. They’d died from starvation and loneliness. Yes, that was the most credible proposal.

Councillor Bluck seemed to be getting a little agitated now, but I had no intention of releasing her until I was sure the cave was safe – if the dragon returned, I’d much prefer it to use its original choice of dinner, so I could make a quick getaway in the rowboat.  Eventually I did get around to untying her, though she didn’t move once I’d done so: it must have been force of habit to stay sitting.

“So,” I said, feeling like a police interrogator, “describe to me your kidnapper.”

“Why should I tell you? You’re just a kid.”

“Wings? Scales? Talons?”

“What do you think took me? Dragons?”

“Dragons, yes. You’ve been held here since you are the town’s resident virgin—”

“Excuse me?”

“And dragons demand such things.”

“Please, tie me up again and just go. I think the other guy is saner.”

“Other guy? Not a dragon?”

Bluck rolled her eyes, and I began to fidget nervously.  I thought this was going to be proof. Proof that dragons existed. But apparently this was just another red herring. Although, the person may have been acting as an accomplice to the dragon! Even I had to admit that this was getting less and less believable.

“But what about the bones?” I continued, pointing towards the shadowy incline.

“What about them?”

“They’re the bones of a baby dragon.”

“No. They’re chicken bones: I had to survive on something, and that’s what my captor brought me. Terribly-cooked, though – it was practically raw.”

Not even the bones were related to dragons. I was crushed. I’d risked my life and wasted my time for nothing, apart from discovering one of the town’s most important figures. No doubt she’d have me exiled or something for dallying.

“Let’s start this conversation again. What did your kidnapper look like?”

“Ali Baba.”

“Really?”

“Of course not, but I’m only going to give this information to the police, not some crazy child.”

“I think you’ll find, Councillor,” I said, realising the ace up my sleeve, “that I have the only way of getting out of here – a boat.”

“I could go through there,” she said, pointing down the incline, “just like you did yesterday.”

“Well, you could. But judging by the time, the tide will be coming in soon. Do you want to risk it?”

Bluck sulked. She was quite clearly annoyed to be outwitted by a child. I was enacting Dad’s revenge: revenge for not becoming mayor, and revenge for generally not getting his way. He’d be so pleased when I told him about this.

“For the third time, Councillor Bluck,” I said it deliberately-slowly this time, “what did your captor look like?”

“He was not foolish; he concealed his face and most of his features every time he came here. All I could tell was that he had the build of a man, though he was of the tall variety, rather than being stocky. That’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, Councillor, you’ve already narrowed down the list of enquiries by half. Thank you for your co-operation.”

“Arrogant child.” she whispered, though she was very aware I was in hearing-range.

I headed back to the boat. Apparently, the librarian had had the foresight to take Emma and Will back while I was in the cave, so that Bluck and I could travel in the boat without it sinking or – as was the more likely option – breaking in half from the weight. Even without their contribution to the load, we still hung unnervingly-close to taking on a lot of water – occasionally some would slosh over the sides, and I’d frantically bail it out with my hands so we didn’t go under.

The trip back was spent in dead silence. This was no exaggeration: even the rowing of the old man seemed quiet, and the air pressed itself close to my ears. There were no echoes, and there was no energy. It seemed that Bluck and I were enemies now, after what had happened in the cave. I didn’t care – if she knew my dislike of her, maybe she’d stop doing that patronising whisper at the end of sentences.

We landed on the beach just in front of the library, and sat there for a while. This was Bluck’s chance to make amends for her sharp judgement and general stupidity. She could even go so far as to thank us for our rescue mission – after all, there was only so much raw chicken you could eat before contracting salmonella. But instead she just stood up and walked off along the beach, as if the librarian and I had never existed to her.

In a few days’ time, she’d give a speech announcing her return, and telling the story of how she fearlessly fought off the criminal who had abducted her. She would recommit herself to the service of Ramsley, and receive a roar of applause for her heroism.

Years later, she’d publish a book about her time as mayor of Ramsley – having gone on to much greater things, of course – and reap in money by the barrowful for her exciting show of strength when captured. But, really, none of this was surprising.

After all, she was a politician.

***

We swept through December like we swept the snow it brought: quite quickly, but at the same time being bitterly cold. It was, without doubt, the coldest December I had ever experienced. Spit would freeze onto your tongue; hair accumulated as much frost as the grass, and scarves were actually necessary. But this was no indictment of Ramsley’s Christmas spirit. After the Bloody Dark fire, the townspeople were banding together to look after those who had lost their homes – Councillor Bluck’s promise of new accommodation held no sway in the matter, though she said she was (as usual) going ahead with her plans anyway.

Christmas was, to describe it as accurately as possible, like being the Brindleys for a week or two. For the Brindleys it seemed to be Christmas all of the time, just without the heating being on. And what a show it was in Ramsley – there were enough lights to put the National Grid into overdrive, and the pine trees of the surrounding forest were carried by the residents like ants carry leaves. All was abuzz with festive cheer, apart when people fell over on the ice. Then everything was abuzz with a series of expletives.

I’d taken to watching this incessant hubbub from my bedroom, not least because there was a radiator conveniently placed beneath the sill. It was entertaining to see Miss Catherine almost break her leg again – right after it had healed – and to watch the people of Ramsley strut down the street with a sense of self-importance peculiar to Christmas alone. I looked up at the hill above Ramsley, and at the ground beneath the tree. Alf was still lying there, unless someone had been so deranged as to dig him up, watching over the town. This would be my first Christmas without Mother, and my first Christmas without Alf. I sighed and ran my hands along the top of the radiator. I wondered when I’d have my last Christmas with Dad.

The captivating busyness of the day came to an end at early evening, and was quickly replaced by the warm glow of the lights wrapped around the seafront’s houses like a pink feather boa, and with all of its comforting gaudiness. The moon, so early in the sky, hustled everyone to bed, making it one less sleep until the day itself. Everyone knew that Santa Claus wouldn’t come if you weren’t asleep, so this was good training.

Not that I believed in Santa Claus: the entire idea seemed ridiculous and without evidence.

***

Dad opened the door and spoke gently.

“You’ve just slept the final night – welcome, Tom, to Christmas Day.”

I’d love to say that I bounded out of bed, rushed downstairs and tore the wrapping off the multitude of colourful presents I’d been given. Closer to the truth, however, was that I groaned and turned over, before trying to get back to sleep.  I’m sure they’d postpone Christmas until I had woken up properly.

Dad’s introductory line – which he had used every year without fail – had begun to lose its effect on me. It had devolved into a phrase as meaningful as “It’s Tuesday today.”, merely keeping me in touch with the calendar and not particularly exciting me. After another twenty minutes or so, I threw my legs out of bed and threw my head into my hands. If Santa Claus decided to arrive at noon, then maybe the day would be more relaxing.

I looked at the clock. Eleven-fifty. Never mind.

There was no mountainous array of gifts waiting for me downstairs, but this was to be expected. We were still short on money: that much hadn’t changed, and didn’t seem that it was ever going to change. Dad bought me some books and some stationery, I bought him a kettle. Well, that was Christmas over; now I could go back to bed, and I returned to the land of dreams as quickly as possible.

Dad seemed a little bit upset by this, but was mostly relieved – he didn’t have to try to tackle the feared and revered Christmas dinner. He’d told me he’d taken out specific anti-turkey-fire insurance, though he didn’t think that it covered the rest of the dinner.

That evening was a little more sociable than the day had been. For a start, I had actually managed to get out of bed for more than twenty minutes, and Dad and I were actually having a conversation. Usually we restricted ourselves to ‘business’ talk – “mow the lawn”; “dinner’s ready” – but this evening the mulled wine was flowing down Dad’s throat, which apparently had the effect of kicking his vocal chords into action.

“First Christmas without Alf.”

“First Christmas without Mother.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s sad.”

“It is.”

We paused for a few minutes, considering the deep and meaningful poetry we had just created.

“It’s very sad.” Dad continued.

“But it seems like Mother has been gone forever. It feels like that with Alf too.”

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t try to take the dog for a walk. Then I realise we don’t have a dog. So I don’t take the dog for a walk.”

An interesting feature of Dad’s drunkenness was that, rather than becoming slurred and incoherent, he instead became meticulously precise in what he said.

“How have we survived this long?” I said, suddenly changing the subject.

“Ah, I can’t say.” replied Dad, missing the side of his nose, “By which I mean it’s a secret. I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? What do you mean why not? By which I mean I still won’t tell you.”

I gave up. These conversations were nightmarish even when he was sober, and I couldn’t take much more “by which I mean” and nose-tapping. But I felt contented here – if we’d made it to Christmas this year, then maybe the next year wasn’t looking so bad after all.

***

I was staring out of the window again. Some days had passed since Christmas, but all of its garish garb still entwined the windows and the trees and even the gargoyles in the Brindleys’ garden. No-one seemed to be willing to give up the festivities just yet, and I wasn’t going to complain – it was better than watching people go to work every day at the same time, and return in droves of unhappy faces.

I usually dozed here, sitting with my head in my hands, working myself into a trance.  I looked down at the townsfolk with an odd mix of enthralment and complete disinterest. They would never look up, but why would you? In this kind of cold your neck could snap cleanly in half with the smallest movement.

The door of the Brindley house opened – though not without a good amount of tugging – and Mr. Callow stepped out, bundled in coat and scarf and hat, and looked around. He tested his breath in the air, but seemed emotionless when it visibly spiralled away. I was intrigued by Mr. Callow – he was a kind and intelligent man, but he did act a little strangely sometimes.

As far as I could tell from this distance, he was holding a piece of paper in his hand, which had very little – if any – writing on it. Perhaps that was all he needed, and couldn’t be bothered to carry around an entire bag. He slid along the garden path, and almost fell right over the fence, much to my amusement. Mr. Callow was the epitome of gangly – if you looked that word up in the dictionary, Mr. Callow would be the bookmark. He got into his car, and started the engine.

He drove about three metres down the street, never leaving the curb. At first I thought he’d forgotten something, which seemed to be the case when he got out of the car, though he seemed in no hurry. He did leave the engine running and the door open – I shivered at the thought of how cold the car would be – and walked up to Emma’s house. Ah! The paper must be homework from the extra lessons he was giving her, and he was now returning it to her. It seemed an extravagant way to avoid what I could only assume was a particularly-dangerous patch of ice, but Mr. Callow was a little strange anyway.

He knocked on the door, and it was quickly opened by Emma’s dad, who smiled and – it seemed – delivered the season’s greetings. I felt like I was stepping into someone else’s world: the unseen witness to their antics. Mr. Callow indicated the piece of paper and said something to Emma’s dad that I couldn’t work out.  Emma’s dad nodded, and went back into the house. Mr. Callow looked over his shoulder to his car – it seemed like he was getting worried about how cold it was too, and how much petrol he was wasting by keeping the engine on for so long. He looked down at the path to Emma’s house and seemed to be counting the number of steps.

Emma appeared in the doorway, wearing a red and green jumper you could only get away with in December. She seemed a little nervous – maybe Mr. Callow was giving her some marks from a test. That would explain why there was so little writing on the piece of paper. He handed her the sheet and began to say something I couldn’t make out, though I caught a few words related to his subject. Emma looked over the sheet, nodding.

Then, in one swift movement, Mr. Callow grabbed her hair and with the other arm flung her over his shoulder. He took exactly three and a half steps down the path, and threw Emma into the car through the open door. He then got in himself, slammed the door shut, and drove off into the December haze.

I sat at my window, trying to piece together what had happened. Mr. Callow had – he’d taken her on a field trip, right? That’s what he’d done. I’d mistakenly interpreted him guiding her along the path as yanking her hair out. Then they sedately got into the car and drove off.

No. I’d just seen Mr. Callow abduct Emma, and it had gone exactly as he’d planned. Why would Mr. Callow take her? He was just an awkward teacher of a pointless subject; he wasn’t anyone nasty or freakish. And I had just been sitting here all along, blankly staring through the window, witness to the deed and powerless to stop it.

It began to gently snow, and soon even Mr. Callow’s footprints on the path had been completely covered over. I tried to entrance myself with the swirling flakes, but all I could think about was Emma’s deathly-white face, catatonic with fear.

Dragons? Dragons.: Chapters 10 and 11

Chapter 10

 

Bluck didn’t return. Her house was searched time and time again, she was contacted in every possible way, but there was still no sign of the councillor. Some thought she’d abandoned the town as soon as she’d hit a major crisis; others thought she had gone searching for help from the government, some believed that she was simply stuck in traffic. But few believed what I believed – what I knew. The townsfolk had completely discounted the possibility of abduction by dragon, as if such a thing didn’t exist.

But, strangely, Ramsley rambled on as it had always done, even without a mayor. Then again, it had gotten along just fine when Mr. Lewis was mayor, and no-one ever saw him. You could probably make the case that Ramsley was better off without one –a large area of the town was now a pile of ash, and there was a dragon wreaking havoc at every turn. Admittedly, we hadn’t yet made many turns, but I knew there was going to be lots of havoc wreaked.

The four of us (or three, if you don’t count Roo) were sitting on the edge of the sea wall, our legs hanging over the edge. You weren’t really allowed to do this, but nor were you allowed to burn Bloody Dark to the ground – suffice to say, people’s minds were otherwise occupied at the moment. Emma seemed occupied, too, and generally very different these days. Not in the way she had been on Hallowe’en: that was deliberate disinterest, but now she was genuinely distracted. She was staring so blankly over the ocean that she hadn’t even tucked her hair behind her ear, something which, usually, really annoyed her.

“Emma?”

“Hm?” she said, not looking up.

“Are you alright?”

“Yep,” she said with a fake smile, “tell me about dragons.”

“Tell me about dragons.” was Emma-speak for “Let’s talk about something else.” – I don’t think she was at all interested, but she seemed scared to be in her own head for too long. Her face was different, too. It wasn’t that she’d lost the spark in her eyes – in fact, they seemed even brighter now, but it felt like more of a last stand than vivaciousness. I hadn’t seen her smile properly in weeks: every time she ‘smiled’ now was accompanied by her gaze drifting through my head to something far behind me. She must have been living her life in some kind of daze, and I had no idea why.

It broke my heart. I hadn’t known how that felt until now, but I could feel the electrifying sensation from seeing her now beginning to turn into a deep pain – I was powerless. I could do nothing to help her. So I told her about dragons, and she listened, and she looked right through me.

***

Even though – for the moment, at least – Bluck was gone, her ideas continued. The councillors seemed to come to blows every day over her ‘green spaces’ ideas. Of course, if they just had a nice, open field then they could literally come to blows over the issue. What’s more, they were cracking down on Ramsley’s drug problem, whatever and wherever that was.  There was even an entire team of sniffer dogs being trained, bringing with them the concept of an active police force. Old Cudgers the constable apparently viewed them with a mix of distrust and relief – he said that you can’t rely on puppies to do tough police stuff, but at least he could have an extra cup of tea every so often.

But I wasn’t concerned about those dogs. I was concerned about my dog.

It hadn’t come on quickly. In fact, it had grown so gradually that I hadn’t noticed at all. Alf was Alf: putting a warm chin on your knee – and quite possibly some warm drool, too – and trying to persuade you to share whatever food you had in your hand at that moment. At the times when you didn’t have food, he’d usually be in bed, or occasionally wandering about the house in search of something to eat. That was Alf.

I came back from school one day. I took off my shoes and un-tucked my shirt from my trousers and did everything else I did as part of the routine. I waited for Alf to trot through and prod me a bit with his nose, just to check that I still existed and I hadn’t come to any serious harm. Usually he’d give Roo a little prod, too, to welcome him home for the evening. But Alf didn’t trot through. There was no prodding.

“Alf?”

I waited patiently, but still he didn’t appear. Maybe he was asleep, though it wasn’t his usual nap-time. I walked through to his bed, and found Alf very much awake, but lying in bed. He looked up at me sadly, with his head resting between his paws.

“I’m back,” I said, “are you too tired to get up?”

More sad looks.

“You lazy dog,” I said, laughing, “if I was a burglar, then the whole house would have been robbed by now.”

I bent down and rubbed his head a bit. He grumphed and settled down further into his bed. That was the first time that I’d seen him sad since Mother died. Maybe Dad had thrown out one of his particularly-loved toys, or something fairly trivial like that – trivial to us, anyway. I never would have suspected he might have been ill, and so I didn’t prepare myself for it. It wasn’t as if he was utterly bed-ridden at first: he still got up and padded around from time to time, giving out hugs and generally being the family dog. He just didn’t do it quite as much.

His condition became really worrying, however, a couple of weeks later. We were sitting having dinner, and Alf wasn’t there. He was in bed, head-between-paws, staring blankly into space. Usually he’d try to make himself as noticeable as possible, making sure his candidacy for your leftovers was clear. Instead, he was now hiding from us.

“He’s acting really strangely.” I said, with no attempt to cover up my worried tone.

“It’s lovely isn’t it?” said Dad, “Not having the dog trying to scrounge your food all of the time. But yes,” he added, after seeing my stern expression, “he doesn’t seem to have been himself lately.”

I even went to Alf in his bed and made it blindingly obvious that we were eating, in case it was just his sense of smell that had stopped working– maybe he just had a doggy cold, and I was overreacting. But even then he didn’t join us in the dining room. I brought some food directly to him, but he wouldn’t eat it. He sniffed at it, and prodded it – and even chewed it a little bit on occasion – but he didn’t eat it. It was then that I grew really worried. He still ate some of his proper meals every day, but often he would just stare at it. Then he’d go back to bed and sit there moping until the next meal, to which he’d do the same.

“Dad,” I said, “we need to take him to a vet. He’s losing so much weight, and it’s been a long time now without improvement.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“What?”

“Dogs go through this kind of thing all the time. He’ll be alright.”

I was shocked. How could Dad just dismiss this as some sort of phase? Didn’t he care about Alf’s wellbeing? You can’t just abandon a dog you’ve had for years and years and years at the drop of a hat. You can’t abandon any dog. I pleaded and begged and grovelled and demanded and very nearly wept at him, just to get Alf taken to the vet. I offered to take him myself if I had to. I offered to pay him for the privilege. It was at this point that Dad gave in and said we’d take him, but mark his words there’d be nothing wrong and it’d be a waste of time.

It took some enticing to get Alf out of bed – he seemed so tired that we never even considered walking to the vet’s; we drove instead. The waiting room was as bland and sterile-looking as you might expect from such a place, but it was the room’s contents – rather than its paintwork – that turned the room black. There were cats and dogs and birds and rabbits and hamsters and all sorts of animals sitting there quietly, looking just as worried as their owners. It was almost silent, apart from the secretary typing away and occasionally answering the phone. The queue rotated around the chairs, each seat moved filling me with a greater dread. I didn’t know what was wrong; I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know if Alf was going to get better. For all I knew, Alf could get put down in less than an hour from now.

We were called through. Alf prodded the vet a little bit with his nose before settling down onto the table. He seemed more than happy for the man to massage his ribs and look in his eyes and everything else that came with a general examination, but I felt he was being too optimistic. The vague smile of the vet began to fade as the examination continued, and as he continued to find whatever it was that was causing the problem. After almost fifteen minutes of silence, the vet leaned back against a table and began to clean his glasses.

“May I ask, sir,” he said, not looking up from his glasses, “what is his diet?”

“Just your standard dog food. I mean, we occasionally give him things from the table, but he’s never been like this before…”

“Obviously I don’t recommend giving him anything from the table, but that certainly isn’t what is causing the problems here. What does ‘your standard dog food’ contain, sir?”

“Well, I’m sure you know better than me. It’s meat and a bunch of other stuff, right?”

“I’m referring to certain additions you may have made, sir.”

“I haven’t changed anything. Why would I change anything?”

At this, the vet shrugged, putting his glasses back on. I looked from Dad to the vet and back again. There was something going on here, and I was completely oblivious to it.

“There is little I can do for Alf,” said the vet, beginning a new thread of conversation, “other than give you some general antibiotics to boost his immune system, in the hope that this is a minor, passing infection. Beyond that, make an appointment for two weeks’ time.”

I held the box of medication while Dad made the appointment. In this box was the old Alf. Either that, or there was no Alf there at all. We made sure to give him the medicine, even when he didn’t like it, and he never liked it. He stayed in bed more and more, and the tablets didn’t seem to be having much of an effect, other than making him dislike us for forcing him to take them. I skipped doing homework to sit by his bed on an evening, in case it was loneliness that was making him sad. I wanted to prepare his food in exactly the right way, too, but Dad said that’s what he was doing. He wouldn’t let me watch though – I had work to do, and loitering around wasn’t going to get it done or make him prepare the food any better. I suppose he had a point, but I still felt bad leaving Alf, who never ate the food anyway.

***

I awoke. An ice-fingered breeze was curling its way through the curtains, and my breath was visible in the air. I must have forgotten to close the window again. Moonlight flashed into the room whenever the curtains moved, like there was a lighthouse right outside. I sat up, shivered a little, and went to close the window. What time was it? It was black enough to be early morning, but I wasn’t particularly tired. I wasn’t going to get back to sleep soon, that was for sure.

Putting some slippers on, I went downstairs. Maybe something to eat would send me to sleep. At the very least, I could check on Alf. I expected to hear him snoring gently, but I didn’t. In fact, when I went to check his bed I found it empty. It was cold. His toys were neatly lined up as usual, but there was nothing to see of their guardian. We hadn’t left a door open, had we? Alf wasn’t the kind of dog to run away, though.

I went through to the living room. He was sitting there quite calmly, with his back to me, looking out of the window. He was staring at the moon, its light reflected in his deep, dark eyes. I sat down beside him, at which point he turned and licked my nose, before looking back to the night.

“How’re you doing, Alf?”

He didn’t look around. His fur glistened in the moonlight, and the only things that separated his dark coat from the shadows were his eyes.

“It’s a beautiful night.” I said, stroking his back, “but you should be in bed. The vet wants you to rest as much as possible.”

Alf breathed out deeply and looked at me. I threw my arms around his neck as I’d done just after Mother’s funeral, burying my face in his thick, plush fur. He had that warm, puppy smell about him, even though he was practically ancient.

“Oh, Alf, please get better. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re like a brother to me. You mean more than Roo and Will and Emma and everyone. Please get better.”

He sighed again and stood up, padding back to his bed. I followed him through and sat on the cushion. He lay down over me, resting his head on my chest. I played with his ears a little, just as I’d always done. We’d been together for years now, since he was a puppy, and we’d always done this. We’d always had these moments.

“You’ll be ok, Alf,” I said, “I promise. I’ll make sure you’re ok.”

Alf rested his head more heavily on me; he was breathing more deeply now. I rubbed his chest, running his fur through my fingers. His eyelids drooped over his marble eyes, and his body moved up and down, as if he was asleep.

Then he sighed a deep grumph, and was still.

***

Dad found me still sitting there, wide-awake, when he came downstairs in the morning. Alf’s body was cold now, but I didn’t want to let go. Eventually Dad had to lift me into the front room and give me some food to take my mind off things. He was clearly upset too, but it didn’t seem like he was too surprised. He must have known that Alf wasn’t going to live for much longer. Maybe he thought going to the vet was going to give me false hope. Maybe that was why he didn’t want to go.

I sat there, staring at my bowl, waiting for Alf to wake up and pad through and prod me with his nose until I gave him some food. He didn’t, obviously. But I waited all the same.

Dad came through a few minutes later and sat down next to me.

“We need to find somewhere to bury him.”

“The church graveyard.”

“No, it needs to be somewhere only we know about.”

“Why?”

“Because then it’s special. That can be our place for remembering Alf.”

“Why can’t that be in the church graveyard?”

“People go there all the time. It needs to be special.”

I gave in. It didn’t really matter to me, anyway – it could be anywhere for all I cared, just as long as there was somewhere. I ate as much as I could manage while Dad prepared himself. He took a big bag out and put Alf in it, before taking the shovel out of the shed. It wasn’t dignified, but if we chose the right spot then Alf would love it.

And so we began our journey: the smallest funeral procession that Ramsley had ever seen. We walked along the seafront, and I looked down at the beach where Alf had loved to play. He’d get soaking wet and covered in sand, and his joints would be stiff the next morning, but he loved it. We walked beyond Outer Ramsley and into the woodland, where we used to take him for walks. He’d always find something disgusting to eat, and would get his lead caught around trees and all sorts. We walked right up to the top of the woodland, to the point at which we could see all of Ramsley. Bloody Dark was now a charred mess; I could see the sagging roof of the library; I could see our house, right at the other side of town.

“By that tree.” I said, pointing.

It had lost all of its leaves by now – after all, we were getting into the depths of winter– but it was easily visibly from the town below. I could look up and remember Alf. My pet, my friend, and my shoulder to cry on. Dad got to work with the spade. I didn’t want to see him getting buried, so I looked towards the town instead. Now there was just me and Dad. We didn’t even have Alf any more. I’d never even thought there’d be a time when I didn’t have Alf. I didn’t think now that there would be a time when I didn’t have Dad.

I watched the sun climbing into the sky above Ramsley, and I wished I could have lived my past life forever.


 

Chapter 11

 

“There’s definitely a dragon here, but where did it go? Huge, fire-breathing monsters don’t just disappear.”

“Don’t they? If you’re already a flying, armoured lizard then why obey the other laws of physics?”

I had immersed myself in the Vernal Order, and their quest to find the dragon. Or, at least, the librarian’s quest to find the dragon: the rest of them didn’t seem to be too bothered about the destruction of their town – they seemed more concerned that Miss Catherine kept making cheese scones instead of cherry scones, and everyone knew Vernal Order Member Four (who wished to keep their identity a secret, though I could tell it was Mr. Garter) was allergic to cheddar.

I got the feeling that I’d joined a group more accustomed to coffee mornings than monster hunting – the only reason I still came was because of the librarian, who seemed to know his stuff. He knew more than I did, anyway.

“Because this campaign would be futile if they didn’t,” I countered, “and trying to slay a dragon is never futile.”

“We aren’t living in some musty old book, boy, this is reality. Dragons will do whatever they want, whatever the lore says.”

“But we only have books for our information, so we may as well try that. Do you have any better ideas?”

The old man sulked. I think I’d been getting the better of him too often for his liking. He was probably quite annoyed that the rest of the Order tended to bring along newspapers and books now, rather than listening to his ‘motivational’ speeches. They weren’t motivational at all, really – they mainly consisted of “the town will be razed; I doubt we can stop it, but let’s talk about trying to do so anyway”.

“Alright,” he conceded, “but don’t blame me if the dragon doesn’t act that like that. I did warn you.”

“So where could we find the dragon?”

“Dragons usually hide up in the mountains, but this one can’t be – we’re too far away from any mountains for a dragon to fly here twice. They’d go to a village or town nearer to their nest, obviously.”

“Not the mountains then. Hm.”

It had to be said, there wasn’t much around that would appeal to a dragon looking to nest somewhere. Ramsley was ringed by a forest, but then there were some gently-sloping hills and then meadow for miles upon miles. The highest point anywhere nearby was probably a pylon. But pylons wouldn’t be very comfortable.

“Well,” I continued, “do they have to be at a high point, or is that just a myth?”

“It’s tough to distinguish between fact and legend, but I’d say that’s a myth, yes. Dragons will find somewhere agreeable and stay there regardless of its altitude. In many cases, also regardless of its comfort.”

“So what are the criteria?”

“It has to be large enough to hold a dragon – naturally – and needs access to the open air from some point. However, that must strike a balance with being protected against the elements, and against predators.”

“Dragons have predators?”

“Yes.”

“What would prey on a dragon?”

“Other dragons.”

“Ah.”

I pondered this for a moment – the criteria, I mean, not the cyclical food chain of the dragon. I didn’t know if there was anywhere in Ramsley like that. I still had the idea of high points on my mind, which was affecting my other thoughts. What about low places? Were there any low places in Ramsley?

“The beach cave,” I almost shouted with the realisation, “the beach cave fits all three.”

“A cave? A beach cave?”

The old man was looking at me confusedly. You wouldn’t think he’d lived in Ramsley for… however old he was. Hundred? Hundred-and-ten? I suppose it was understandable, with him spending all of his time in a converted wardrobe in a library. The beach cave was situated just a little out of town – in fact, it was only a few minutes’ walk from my house. It had originally just been a cliff-face, but there must have been a vein of something particularly-erodible, and so a wide-mouthed cave was formed. At school, they took people there for Geography trips; when I’d gone, I didn’t listen much.

“It’s far enough out of town that we wouldn’t see the dragon emerging or going back in, and it’s full of caverns on the inside.”

“Sounds perfect.”

“The only problem is that it’s tidal, but I bet there’s a part that’s always dry.”

“Excellent. You should head there at once.”

“Wait, me?”

“But of course. I’m far too old to be doing any sort of dangerous expeditions. I’d break a rib as soon as the wind blows. I’m just here for organisation. Obviously I don’t expect you to go on your own; take your friend.”

He pointed at Will, who was dozing in his chair.

“But we couldn’t possibly slay the dragon. We aren’t knights in armour and we don’t have even one magical sword.”

“This isn’t the final goal, boy, this is a reconnaissance mission. Take your lady friend, too. Where is she, by the way?”

“She has extra lessons with Mr. Callow.”

“Extra lessons? Sounds awfully boring.”

“That can’t be right,” said Vernal Order Member Four, “we don’t do any lessons during the holidays.”

“Maybe Mr. Callow is putting them on especially.” I said, shrugging.

“The building gets locked.”

“They have outdoor lessons?” I said, growing more frustrated. I didn’t care about Mr. Callow’s schedule – Emma told me she was having extra lessons, so that’s what was happening. Why would she lie about something so mundane?

“Anyway,” said the librarian, trying to get back on track, “you should travel to and investigate this cave. We will reconvene when you have done so. For now, the Vernal Order and Guests are dismissed.”

The librarian hit his desk – clearly wishing for some sort of gavel –and the Order stirred from their naps, hurrying out of the gloomy library as quickly as their spindly legs could manage. The librarian resumed his usual activity of scribbling away at a piece of paper, and in just a few moments it seemed that no meeting had taken place at all.

You had to applaud the Vernal Order for one thing: it really did feel like a secret society. Well, apart from the black-clothed pensioners parading in and out of the library every few days.

***

Emma was still unhappy. I suppose I would be if I had to have so many extra lessons – especially from Mr. Callow, in whose lesson nothing much was ever taught. It would really be a blow to my confidence. I think she was bullied by her parents for getting them, too. Whenever I saw them together, it seemed tense and cold, as if she’d disappointed them. I didn’t see what all of the fuss was about: it was only one subject, and an unimportant one at that. But great things were expected of her, and so they punished her for needing extra lessons.

She’d never talk about her time with Mr. Callow, though, and nor would she say anything about how her parents treated her. She hardly said anything anymore, but it was clear she appreciated spending time with me and Will. It was probably an escape for her. And, of course, I was very handsome. That was the main reason.

And so the three of us were now standing in front of the beach cave, known to all Ramsley (those who had journeyed outside the boundaries of the town, anyway) as Cliffmouth. It was not a particularly inspired name, but caves demand no poetry or metaphor.

“Does anyone ever go in?” said Emma warily.

“Nope, it’s too dangerous.”

“And we’re going to go in.”

“Sure, why not?”

Emma rolled her eyes as a form of protest, but I wasn’t going to back down. We could potentially discover a dragon and steal its loot. Then we wouldn’t run out of money ever again. I had noticed the frown lines on Dad’s forehead getting deeper and deeper over the past couple of months, and a sizeable portion of gems and bullion would certainly assuage those worries. On the other hand, we could all be torn to pieces – and possibly eaten – by a dragon. It was a fair trade-off: at least we’d be remembered as being the first humans in modern times to lay eyes on a dragon, albeit not for long.

“You’ve checked the tides, right?” said Will.

“Of course. We’ll have plenty of time to get in there and get out again.”

“With our limbs still attached?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m not sure about this.” said Emma weakly.

I had to practically drag them into the cave. We weren’t your average group of dragon hunters, that was for sure. Even the promise of riches beyond measure didn’t hold much sway against their defence of “it’s a fire-breathing monster”. Luckily, I had the ultimate persuasive tool of guilt – if I went in there alone and never came back, could they live with that on their conscience?

They couldn’t.

“Careful,” I said over my shoulder, “it’s very slippery.”

“If you’d told me it would be like this, then I would have brought some shoes with better grip.” said Emma, gingerly taking a step forward.

Even though it was low-tide at the moment, there was still a small stream of water that trickled away into the darkness. Following the sound of water would get us to the lowest point, but so would slipping and falling to our deaths. I tried to stick to the first strategy as much as possible. If they’d built handholds into the cave walls then it would have been a lot easier. Instead, I had to try and grip the limestone walls with the palm of my hand. I couldn’t even see my own feet, but being in the library and wandering around Bloody Dark had trained my brain to this kind of utter blackness.

But Emma didn’t have that kind of training. There was the noise over scrabbling feet behind me, and then she screamed. I immediately bent my knees and gripped the rocks below as best I could, holding my hands out into the darkness. And then my arms were full of Emma, who nearly pushed me over with her momentum.

“That was lucky,” she whispered, shaking a little, “and I think all of my luck has been used up now.”

“We can’t go back now. We’re in here; we’re pretty much halfway there.”

“How do you know? You’ve never been here before.”

“Well, once we climb down this sheer drop behind me, we’re bound to be at least halfway there.”

“Sheer drop?”

“Yep. Don’t worry about it, I’ve still got one foot balanced on this ledge.”

Emma quickly realised my hint and disentangled her arms from mine. I carefully lowered myself to the ground and picked up a pebble, dropping it over the edge.  There was an almost-immediate noise of it hitting the ground. I could tell that the other two were glaring at me for scaring them so much.

“Alright, so it’s not that much of a sheer drop. You can’t tell in a place like this.”

“Let’s just get on with it.” said Emma.

I’d have loved to say that was all part of my plan to motivate her, but no – I had just made a fool of myself. We continued down and down, spiralling around and following the water. Had there been any crossroads or multiple possible paths, then we would have gotten lost for sure. Fortunately it all appeared to be a single, connected cave. It certainly wasn’t a small cave, either – it was easily big enough for a dragon to clamber through, and this was evidence enough for me that a dragon was living here.

What’s more, there were occasional noises from far below us. They were difficult to distinguish in an environment where a single displaced pebble can be like an orchestra, but they were sounds similar to the rasping noises we’d heard at the Hallowe’en party. To think that I’d at first only thought about dragons nesting in mountains, and here was a beast living quite happily in the bottom of a cave.

As we ventured further down, the rasping became louder, until it became more of a groaning noise. Maybe it was the dragon snoring – this was the perfect opportunity to sneak up to it and steal its treasure. It was also the ideal moment to find a cantankerous, newly-awakened monster, but I put this thought to the back of my mind. Just like I’d said to Emma, we could turn back at any time. No, that’s not what I said, what I said was—

I slipped. I slipped, and there was no-one to catch me. I heard the other two shout and gasp, I couldn’t tell who had done what. I landed hard on my back and slid down into the darkness, with stalagmites ripping my trousers, and thankfully not my legs. I found myself at the bottom of our path, and at the bottom of a further incline, where a lot of water had collected. I could hear a scramble of feet behind me from Will and Emma, trying to get to me as quickly as possible. I sat up on my elbow and examined Roo, who had been in my pocket. Miraculously, he seemed almost unharmed.

But most clearly I could hear the groaning. It sounded like it was just over the incline, though I hardly dared to move. If I made the wrong move now, I could be gored sooner than I could scream. With extreme care I leaned over to rest on the incline. I felt something sharp dig into my hand, though not enough to pierce the skin. I rummaged around in the dark and unearthed the protrusion, squinting at it in the gloom.

It was a bone. It looked like some sort of leg bone, belonging to a relatively small creature. My mind flipped back through the pages of ‘A History of Dragons’. I nodded solemnly to myself. It was the bone of a young dragon. Had the mother eaten her own child, or had it died? It could quite feasibly have been either. I put the bone down as quickly as I could without making a sound, shuddering. Or maybe I was mistaken, something very possible in the darkness. Maybe it was a human bone.

“Tom!”

Emma and Will were scrambling down the other side of the ditch. I hissed at them to be quiet, and pointed up the incline as visibly as I could in the dim cave. The groaning had stopped for the moment – the dragon must have heard their outcry. We lay flat against the incline for an eternity, trying not to breathe. The dragon could have been bearing down on us at that very moment, and we wouldn’t have known it was even there.

Then there was a different sound. This time, it came from above, echoing down the cavern. It was the sound of water.

“The tide!” I hissed, “The tide’s coming in!”

“What?” said Will, “I thought you said we had ages.”

“Either I got the times wrong, or we’ve been in here too long.”

“Which one gives us a better chance of survival?” said Emma.

“Neither.”

“Oh.”

A pause.

“I hope that means both give us a one-hundred-per-cent probability of survival.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“Now you’re on the right lines.”

We leapt up out of the ditch and began to climb back up the tunnel we’d used to get down here. The groaning became a howling, and the sound of rocks being hurriedly shifted underfoot thundered through the cave. I didn’t even care if we were being chased by a dragon – at least running gave us some chance of not dying.

The little trickle of water we’d seen earlier had already become a sizeable stream, and it was widening by the second. Stalagmites broke in my hands as I pulled myself up. I couldn’t even see Will’s feet in front of me – I could only tell he was here by his grunting as he pushed from crevice to crevice. Will was the sporty one; he was going to make it out for sure. My arms were already burning, and we didn’t even seem to have completed a single spiral yet.

There was now a barrage of water in the middle of the tunnel, dwarfing the other noises and almost nulling my progress. This was it. There was no way I could get out. I wondered what my legacy would be. ‘Boy dies in cave-exploring accident’. That would be it – there’d be no mention of dragons, no mention of adventure. Mr. Stevens would say what a lovely boy I was, and how I’d be missed by the entire school. Hardly anyone at school knew who I was. What impact had I made? None.

I was gulping in a mouthful of seawater with every breath now; the only thing keeping me alive was my grip on a stalagmite. I could feel my shoulder dislocating. Roo was drenched. He was ruined. All my care to keep him pristine, and it had all been for naught.

“Tom?” said Will, somewhere far further up in the cavern, “Tom, are you still here?”

I closed my eyes and held Roo close to my chest. Water was pouring down my back now. It could pull me away at any moment. My entire arm was going numb from holding up my weight against the current. I really should have written a will. No, I should have first returned ‘A History of Dragons’ to the library. I’d get permanently blacklisted for not bringing it back on time – I’d never be able to borrow anything again. Hopefully the librarian would understand the circumstances, though he’d probably just be annoyed, since I hadn’t managed to get more dragon blood ink for his pen.

The stalagmite snapped.