Leighton Middle Odyssey: Episode One
Today is not a good day for Suzy. The anniversary of the car crash is always the worst. On other days, Suzy remembers good things, too. She remembers the sound of Mum’s voice, or the warm weight of Dad’s arm across her shoulders. On other days it’s like Mum and Dad are still here, just … somewhere out of sight. Just round the corner, maybe. But on the anniversary day Suzy remembers the policewoman at the door, Nan and Gramps crying and all the other bad, sad stuff. She remembers the miserable box of things that came back from the police station: Dad’s wallet, Mum’s shoes, and even the little tree from off the dashboard. In a funny kind of way that was almost the saddest thing of all.
Now Market Day is nearly over and Suzy is packing away her stall into Gramp’s crates. Suzy’s stall isn’t quite antiques, more bric-a-brac, curios, maybe. Yes, curios should just about cover it. Bits and bobs from different lives that have all - somehow - ended up at Suzy’s stall.
The last of the daylight is fading by the time Suzy stacks the crates in the back of Gramp’s car. Gramps will be over later to take everything home. As she closes the boot, something catches her eye. A little glowing light, from one of the crates. Funny, what could that be? Suzy opens up the boot again and rummages through the box. Here. It’s a little, plastic frog. A little glowing, plastic frog. Just as she turns it over in her hands, the light goes out, but then another light, the same, strange little glow, starts up on the ground just in front of her. As she bends down towards it, it goes out, and re-appears a little way off. But she’s still holding the plastic frog in her hand. She can feel it. What’s going on? Suzy steps towards the new little light.
* * * * * *
The old man in apartment 13F tweaks aside the curtains and looks down on the market place. It’s hard to see out in the gathering dusk and so he reaches out and switches off the Christmas Tree lights. That’s better, he can see out now. It’s always nearly Christmas in apartment 13F and yet Christmas Day never quite comes around. Decorating that little tree was the last thing that Lily ever did in the apartment - almost the last thing she did before she was killed - and the old man would never dream of taking it down. He’d only switched off the lights because there’s something important happening outside. He’s sure of it. He can feel it.
Down below there’s a young lady setting off down the High Street. She keeps stopping, like she’s looking for something. It’s lights she’s looking for, he realises suddenly, little lights, a bit like the lights on his tree. And there they are - he can see them now that his eyes are used to the dark, tiny glowing lights leading all the way down the high street and out round the corner. Looks like they lead all the way up to The Cedars. No, of course, it’s not called that anymore, he’s not got his head screwed on right. It’s a school, now. Of course it is. He shakes his head impatiently.
The old man reaches for his hat on the back of the door and taps the dust off it. He’s not left the apartment for well over a year now, perhaps nearer two, but there’s nothing else for it, he’s going to have to go. This is what he’s been waiting for all this time. He’s sure of it. He can feel it.
He pulls the door shut behind him, firmly.
* * * * * *
A tall girl stands in the deepening shadows at the edge of the market place. Jane is used to being on the edge of things. She calls herself “Jane”, but actually she has no idea what her name really is. Jane was found one cold, lonely night, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of the market cross. Some kind soul took her to the health centre, and from there she was passed from foster family to foster family, but not before some social worker or another decided she should be called Jane. So Jane she stayed. And when she left the last foster family far behind her, and came back here on her own, she brought the name with her, cos it’s as good a name as any other, isn’t it? But she’s not a Jane, really. Is she? All that Jane has that she can call her very own is a belt with a solid silver rat for a buckle. They told her that when she was found, the belt was holding the blanket fast around her. Jane’s wearing it round her waist right now. Doesn’t ever take it off if she can help it.
So here at the edge of the market place, Jane stands, watching. And what Jane is watching is Suzy, setting off down High Street. She doesn’t look worth tapping for money, or food. But there’s something about Suzy that has caught Jane’s eye. Of course she’s seen her, many a time, seen her standing behind that stall with them weird odds and sods on it, but she wouldn’t have noticed Jane. Most people don’t notice Jane. And that’s just the way she likes it.
And now here’s something else strange. An old man coming our from the flats. Jane knows everyone - just to look at, of course - Jane knows everyone who lives in them flats and there’s no old folks. Maybe he was visiting someone. He’s looking all around himself like he’s seeing it all for the first time. Not quite right in the head, maybe. Jane laughs to herself. Without knowing exactly why, Jane follows the old man. She follows him almost all the way down High Street before she realises that he’s following the market stall girl. Strange, that’s what it is. Something’s up.
Jane watches the old man cross the road and go through a big old gate, the market girl is just a little way ahead of him, hard to make out in the darkness. Jane crosses the road after them and slips through the gate too. All around her she can just about make out the trunks of tall trees. Strange, that’s what it is. What’s going to happen now?
* * * * * *
Meanwhile … in another place and even, perhaps, in another time, Mary is scared. The big book under her arm is heavy, and even Dolly isn’t much good for company. It’s been hours now since Grandfather … got lost. Hours and hours and it’ll be getting dark soon, and where’s she supposed to go all on her own? It’s been just her and Grandfather for as long as she can remember, and her and Grandfather made a good family. He never scolded her or told her she was being silly for being so frightened of all the people. Even though he couldn’t see what she could see - even though he didn’t really understand about the strange, dead, blank faces all around her, it didn’t matter, not with Grandfather.
Mary watched, as everyone she’d ever known seemed to become infected with that horrible blankness, as if they were catching it off each other, like the Pox, and she watched them forget about her, and their friends, their families, forget about everything they were doing and just become …. dead, really. Walking dead. But why was she the only one who ever seemed to notice?
And then this morning when she went to find Grandfather in his study he’d had that same blank stare. That dead look in his eyes. She was going to read to him, to him and Dolly, but Grandfather didn’t look like he would be interested in listening. Not today. And even when she called out to him and he turned his head towards her he didn’t seem to really see her. He just stood there, worrying and prodding over and over at some little spot on the mantlepiece and then finally when he started to stumble towards her with his cold dead eyes, Mary turned and ran.
And now here she is, and it’s hours later and she doesn’t know where to go, or who can help her. But she won’t cry. Throughout this big long day she hasn’t cried once, and she won’t start now.
Abruptly, Mary sits down at the edge of the kerb and sits Dolly down beside her, arranging her own petticoats and then Dolly’s petticoats carefully all neat and tidy in the dust. Then Mary opens her book, her very special book of very special stories, and begins to read to Dolly, her voice trembling only a little:
“In the olden times, when wishing still helped …”
* * * * * *
By the time the little voice finds its way down through the grating and into the darkness, across the puddles and into the small dry patch where Timothy Johnson sits, by the time the voice comes all that way, it is barely even a whisper. But Timothy Johnson has been in silence for so long that he hears it, still manages to make out the words quite clearly. “In the olden times when wishing still helped …”
Timothy Johnson pats the pocket of his ragged, damp coat to make sure the photograph of his great great great grandfather is still there. Then he scrambles to his feet and walks softly, gently and oh so quietly, his head tilted, following the sound of the little voice.
* * * * * *
Somewhere else, somewhere very far away indeed, a girl with purple skin smiles to herself. Today will be a good day, she knows it. She doesn’t know exactly what will happen, but she knows it will be something good. She knows this in the same way that she always - more or less - knows things about her future. She walks briskly through the vast, empty, open plain, with her broomstick sparkling in her hand. She walks for hours and hours, and then she walks a little further, until far in the distance something comes into view on the horizon.
It’s still some hours further before she reaches the wall, before she’s standing in front of it at last. The wall stretches up, up very far up into the sky, unimaginably high and unimaginably wide. The wall cuts right across the land, blocking off Within from Without, and Without from Within. She can’t go over it. She can’t go around it. She’ll have to go through it.
One of these bricks, she is sure of it, will be the keystone that will let her through. She starts to tap each one with the handle of her broom. Tap tap tap.