A special compilation post featuring the opening chapters of Bath Children’s Novel Award 2015 winning and shortlisted writers (pictured left to right from top): LUCY VAN SMIT (Winner); SHARON TANDY (Runner Up); JANE BRITTAN; SOPHIE CAMERON & DOROTHY MASSEY
Hurts So Good by Lucy Van Smit (2015 Winner / YA Psychological Thriller)
I stole a baby.
The words rattle round my head, as I climb high above the fjord, and stand on Sermon Rock, my eyes watering in the cold mountain air.
I stole a baby.
Does that make me a bad person?
Yeah. It does.
I listen to the cries coming from her baby carrier. I drag the contraption off my sweating back, jam it upright between my feet, and flip out the stand. The stench of her dirty nappy makes my stomach heave. Once the carrier is stable on the flat rock, I straighten her baby cap, and her pink boot falls off again. I give up trying to get it back on, and grab the camera. Her muffled cries build to a crescendo, and my legs shake like they’re possessed. Tiny stones twist and screech under my feet. I drop and crawl to the overhang. And make myself look down. But the mountain track, jagged with rocks and pines, is deserted.
I wiggle back and check the camera still works. Norway stuns me. Mountains drop into the sea like emerald icebergs, and the Vaerøyfjord is so clear I can see all the way to the bottom. I used to love how the bones of the mountains fuse together into underwater cathedrals. Now the wind howls, and hurls my matted red hair across my mouth. I spit it out, and sniff my armpit. I know it’s shallow, but I don’t want to die looking like this.
I want one more day. One more day.
It’s not much to ask. Is it? To do all that ordinary stuff again. Hot showers. With real shampoo. Or catch a bus to the shops. Or say goodbye, and hug my sister. Shit. I never said I loved them. I binned my life like toilet paper, and never noticed.
I film my last words. ‘‘Tell my sister, I’m sorry…’
The camera flies out of my fingers. It spins in an arc over the dead drop, and then snaps back and forth on the strap. It’s snagged on my bracelet. Shit. I lose mum’s camera, and it’s game over. I can’t catch my breath. The air is full of pine gum, and birdsong, but I’m gasping, and only getting snippets of air.
What if I bottle it again? What if this doesn’t work? What if he finds her?
Pray louder than your thoughts, Ellie.
My dad’s voice is so clear in my head. I turn round to hug him. It must have been a trick of the wind. I’m alone on Sermon Rock. No one will save me. No one will listen. I hear a robin bragging to the other birds, and stare across the fjord. The midnight sun casts silvery shadows on the water. The Midnight Sun. They call it the Black Sun here. The Black Son. That’s him all over.
Can I really stop him? Yeah, definitely. Maybe. If I keep my head.
‘I’m Ellie Lambe,’ I say on camera. ‘I’m sixteen. If you’re watching this, I guess I’m dead already. Don’t freak out on me. It’s way worse for me, and I need you to listen. I die, and she gets to live, but only if you listen.’
It sounds horribly wrong. Like a stupid snuff-selfie. Will they believe me? Purple shadows lengthen on the path between the rocks. The robin has stopped singing.
I can’t see him at first, then he strides over the mountain like he owns it. I concentrate on keeping the lens steady, but fear blurs his image in and out of focus. So he seems real and not real. The full-length sheepskin swings around his legs. His black hair is longer, and curls over the turquoise wolf-eyes. How can someone so beautiful be evil? I still don’t get that.
‘Recognise him?’ I say, on camera. ‘Close your eyes to his beauty. Don’t listen to his voice. Every word he says is a sodding lie. He’s lost his soul, his heart, his mind. Stop him next time.’
‘Ellie?’ he calls. ‘You have to give her back. She’s not your plaything. You don’t know what you are doing. Give her up. We can start over. You and me. Be family.’
His deep voice is more hypnotic than ever. He could charm angels out of heaven. My body betrays me, and I can’t tear my eyes away from his face.
He was all I ever wanted.
‘No.’ I say. ‘It ends here. I promised to save her.’
The wind lifts, I glance down at the rucksack, her crying has gone back to a gulping sound. I hold the camera stable, keeping it between me, and his lying eyes.
‘That’s your big plan?’ he laughs. ‘A home movie? They’ll never believe you over me. I know, let’s ask your God who’s in the right.’ He holds up the 20 kroner coin. ‘Tails, she’s yours. Heads, she’s mine.’
I film him as he flips the Norwegian coin high into the air. We both watch it spin, and blink, in the dim sunlight. The coin lands in his hand, and he opens his fingers, one by one, holds it up, and smiles his big easy smile.
‘Heads,’ he says, ‘I win. Hand her over.’
He leaps over the fissure in Sermon Rock, surefooted as a wolf, and strolls up to me. From habit, I step between him and the baby carrier. Her cries are weaker now, and I’m shaking so bad I lower the camera. His breath warms my face, and his turquoise eyes stare into mine.
For a moment, I think he sees me too. Remembers us.
Then the hunting knife is in his hand. I stare right, and call his bluff. ‘You won’t hurt me. Or her. Not with that. Blood’s not your thing.’
He raises one black eyebrow, laughs, and clips the knife back on his belt. ‘Yup. Blood phobia. You know me too well. Hell of a weakness. Never mind, hey?’
Then his wolf-eyes go empty. One minute he’s laughing, the next, he’s a cold, cold monster. Inhuman. The change terrifies me. He reaches down, snatches up the carrier by the metal frame, and swings it over the edge.
The panic punches into me. I know I can’t stop him. Can’t reach him. So I capture the moment when the baby blue eyes blink at him. Her cries build to a howl. Her dear voice catches at my heart. She cries like she’s begging for my life, not hers.
He stops, drags the baby carrier back, and rips off her hat. ‘What the…’ Rummaging through the baby carrier, he pulls out my old doll, Honey, padded out in her baby clothes. Then he finds my phone. It’s still playing.
‘That how you did it?’ he says. ‘Her voice? Played on your phone? You wrapped her stinking nappy around one of your dolls? Gross. That’s all you got? You thought you could fool me. With a doll? Don’t you know who I am?’
‘Yeah, I know you. And I recorded her on a loop. To lure you away. Far from her. You don’t get to hurt her.’
‘You’re on the road to nowhere with this.’ His fist crushes my phone into the rock, and her crying stops. He gives the baby carrier a vicious kick over the edge. It flies into the air. Drops down into the fjord. My heart flies with it, as if she is dying for real. Her clothes spill out. Nappies tumble. And her pink shoe. It seems like forever before they hit the water. The doll floats on the surface, and then sinks. The pink shoe bobs up and down. I can’t move. The image of her drowning burns into me. I was right. We’ll never be safe. Not from him.
He balances on the edge of Sermon Rock, his long coat hangs dead still. The robin starts up again. This time I hear each note in his birdsong. And each one reminds me of what I’ve lost.
‘Where is she?’ he says, at last. I know he hates to admit he can’t work it out.
‘Safe, for now,’ I say. ‘I forgive you. You can’t help yourself.’
‘You forgive me?’ He glares at the camera. ‘For what?’
‘Revenge. Death. I know what you did.’
‘You think, really?’ He snaps his fingers. ‘Give me the camera! Don’t make me hurt you.’
I toss my mum’s Leica to him, he cradles it in his hand, and then lobs it into the fjord.
‘Without that, no one believes a word you say. Not the police. Not my father. Or your precious sister. You’re a liar. You don’t get to betray me. I make the rules.’
The sheepskin snaps around him as he walks back to me.
‘No. I do,’ I say. ‘Game over.’
The memory card is wafer thin. It shakes in my fingers. I place it on my tongue. Part of me dies in that moment. Before I swallow. Then I remember. This is my legacy. This film, it’s about him, and me, and her.
The Miniatures by Sharon Tandy (2015 Runner Up/ MG Comedy Adventure)
I shrunk Mum four days ago.
She’s five and a quarter inches now. Just a little bit smaller than your average Barbie doll. She’s still very much the same Mum. She nags. She cleans. She worries about me every single day. Except these days it helps if you own a magnifying glass if you need to talk to her.
Don’t be thinking that I normally go around shrinking people.
I can barely tie up my own shoelaces, let alone shrink anyone.
Let alone shrink my very own mother!!
But that’s exactly what I did.
Four days ago.
Eight seven hours if you’re counting.
Obviously I am!
That was the day I shrunk Mum with a Nerf gun.
Well actually it wasn’t a Nerf gun.
It looked like a Nerf gun. It smelt like a Nerf gun. It tasted like a Nerf gun. But when I googled it, the gun was in fact, a Delta Ray Pro Lite Miniaturisation Gun that had found its way into the back of my pants drawer.
Completely illegal and like totally classified.
And in the back of my pants drawer!
Seriously, it wasn’t as if I was even looking for pants.
I mean I’d worn the same underpants for a month.
Actually two months.
In fact, I was looking for socks in my pants drawer.
Socks that matched.
Yep!! In my pants drawer.
But then Bosh!
There She was. The Nerf gun (although now I know it wasn’t a Nerf gun, obvs) all shiny and massive and hidden beneath socks that were three sizes too small.
In my pants drawer!
I picked up the gun carefully and dribbled over its finery. It caused me to salivate more than a Big Mac, large fries, chocolate milkshake and a Flake McFlurry.
It was when I wiped off the said dribble that I noticed the button.
The button that said,
DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON EVER!!
I mean seriously… how can you not NOT press a button that says,
DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON EVER!!
You have to press it, right?
It’s the first rule of button pressing.
It just so happens when I pressed the DO NO PRESS THIS BUTTON EVER button was the exact same microsecond Mum walked into my bedroom and brought me clean socks to pop into the pants drawer that I never normally go in.
As Mum opened the door (because mum’s never knock now do they?) and before she had time to scream,
JAKE EDWARD HENRY WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU DOING???
By that time, I had already pressed the button that said,
DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON EVER!!
Instead of sensible soft foam missiles firing out the end, the loudest explosion ever to rock 85 Crackle Close occurred. It sounded like a billion firecrackers were stuffed inside my wardrobe and made the entire neighbourhood shake for over ten seconds, fact.
The explosion set off car alarms and made grown men weep into their beer. It caused Kendall, next door’s evil cat to go into an early labour.
But worse than all that, Mum was gone.
And that was that.
Suddenly Mum became incredibly small.
Well miniature, actually.
Ernie was the first person I told that I had shrunk Mum.
It was lunchtime when Ernie Ray opened his front door wearing tartan pyjamas and using language no ten-year-old should hear on a fine autumnal afternoon.
‘It’s you.’ Ernie hissed at me. Half of his breakfast was lodged in his grey fine beard. ‘What the Xx&*!?!’.
I could immediately tell Ernie was in a positively joyous mood.
“Ernie, I have a big problem!” I cried feeling a little bit closer to the Destination known only as Helplessness. ‘Like an unlucky thirteen on the Richter scale of problems!!’
Car alarms continued to go off everywhere and there were people standing in the middle of the road looking up at the skies hoping to actually see if it would rain proper cats and dogs.
‘Problems! You’ve got problems.’ Ernie hissed. ‘There’s a cat giving birth in my shed.’ Ernie said.
‘And my house shook for five seconds.’ Ernie sighed.
‘Ten seconds actually.’ I corrected him. ‘Shaking houses aren’t good Ernie. I understand that. But I’ve got problems.’ I cried. ‘I mean small but huge problems. If you get what I mean.’
A lot of folk don’t like Ernie.
I mean he is incredibly mean and he’s incredibly grumpy. And rude. So rude. Plus he stinks. He stinks real bad. No worse, often Ernie stinks like death.
If the Guinness Book of World Records were searching for a new entry entitled,
NASTIEST MAN ALIVE EVER.
Then they’d be hard pressed to beat Ernie.
Ernie is nasty. He loves making people cry especially window cleaners, scouts, vicars and his carer, Linda who is way too scared to turn up. He swears and farts and eats with his mouth so wide open that sometimes you can count his ribs inside his rib cage.
He’s missing three.
Mum said it didn’t matter. I have to respect Ernie and his “challenging ways” because Ernie is 92 years old. I think it’s mainly because Ernie is our closest neighbour.
“So what’s your problem then kid?’ Ernie hissed. ‘You cut the cat’s whiskers off, again?’
‘Ernie, I did that when I was like three!!’ I said.
‘Did you grate your baby cousin’s bum with a cheese grater?’
‘Not today.’ I sighed. ‘I hadn’t even started nursery when I did that.’
‘So let me guess… you set the school library on fire! Again?!” Ernie cried.
‘That was last week.’ I said stamping my foot heavy on the concrete. ‘And like I said to the chief fire inspector at the time… IT WAS A TOTALLY INNOCENT ACCIDENT!!’
‘So what you’ve gone an’ done then, kid?’ Ernie cried being far too old to continually play no nonsense guessing games.
‘I’ve shrunk Mum’ I sighed. ‘With a Delta Ray Pro Lite Miniaturisation Gun.’
Ernie digested the problem for exactly twelve seconds like he was chewing on a particularly tough piece of apple core.
‘Nice!’ He cried, high fiving the pleasant warm air. ‘I’ve read about those on the Internet. Illegal?’
I nodded. ‘Totally. And like completely so classified they are off the classified scale. Except I found it in my pants drawer.’
‘A good place to hide one,’ Ernie said.
‘Agreed.’ I nodded.
‘So you pressed the button that said do not press this button ever?’ Ernie guessed correctly on the first attempt.
‘Yep.’ I sighed.
‘Had to be pressed.’ Ernie nodded.
‘And your mum was just standing there waiting to be shrunk was she?’
When Ernie mentioned the M word, I tried my hardest not to cry. Ernie said crying was for wimps and totally depressed people and sometimes, very occasionally, newborn babies.
Crying was not for good authenticated ten-year-old boys.
‘Don’t cry.’ Ernie snapped. ‘Remember crying is for wimps and totally depressed people.’ He said.
‘And babies.’ I added, ‘don’t forget the newborns,’ I said, trying to sniff tears back through my eye sockets. ‘I understand all that. But she was just bringing me clean socks to put back in my pants drawer. She was just being Mum.’
Ernie squeezed my shoulder a little harder than was really necessary.
‘Okay kid, so where’s your mum now?’
I shook my rucksack for a total of eight seconds.
‘In this bag’, I said. ‘She’s been kicking my back all the way here.’ I said. ‘She may be small but she’s extremely strong now.’ I told him. ‘And vicious. Wiggled like a conger eel when I popped her inside.’ I said. ‘And she didn’t even say thank you when I made her a peanut butter sandwich and put a can of coke inside with her…. diet coke… naturally.’
‘You best bring your mum inside then.’ Ernie said.
‘Great Ernie.’ I said.
And that’s what I did.
‘I wished I had tidied up!” Ernie cried and then laughed so much I thought his dentures would drop out.
Ernie hadn’t tidied up his house since the end of the war. He wasn’t about to tidy up his kitchen just for my Mum, however miniature she was. There was dust on dust; germs on germs, pizza boxes on pizza boxes. He had more trip hazards then an army assault course, uncommon diseases with posh Latin names originated mainly from the inside shelving of Ernie’s fridge.
I was kinda used to Ernie’s house. Actually I really liked it. It wasn’t all prim and proper like our home. Ernie didn’t scream down your eardrums if you’d forgotten to take off your shoes or ground you for an entire week if you dropped an invisible crumb onto any one of the woollen weave carpets. He didn’t hyperventilate if you didn’t put down the toilet seat down either. It was practically the law to wee anywhere you wanted too in Ernie’s house.
‘Make yourself at home then kid.’ Ernie cried.
I knew Mum wouldn’t like Ernie’s house. The scent was what Mum would call Choice. If you weren’t careful it could make your eyes roll back like Las Vegas slots. And if you breathed the air in a little too deeply, it made sharp stabbing pains towards the centre of your chest.
‘I’d offer you and your mum a cup of tea but tea’s for dumb dumbs, right?’ Ernie said. ‘You wanna brandy?’
‘I’m underage Ernie.’ I reminded him for the zillionth time. ‘But I’m fine, thanks. And Mum’s got her diet coke with her, right.’
It wasn’t just Ernie who lived at 87 Crackle Close. Ernie had gathered a few more unusual houseguests.
A BRIEF LIST OF HOUSE GUESTS SHARING ERNIE’S HOUSE
1 x Wasp Nest (Very friendly. Stung only once on lip)
1 x Hedgehog (Hibernating called Carol)
1 x Tortoise (Harold. Continually constipated. Aged 120-ish approx.)
3 x Daddy Long Legs (Mainly on lights)
26 x Spiders (Largest. Size of human adult hand)
7 x Rats (Angry when hungry. Prone to occasionally biting ankles)
‘Put your mum down on the worktop kid.’ Ernie cried moving a pizza box older than me to the side as he poured. ‘Let’s have a good look at her…’ Ernie said trying to locate his glasses.
I slid them down off his head onto the bridge of his bulbous nose.
‘Listen, we’ve got to be careful Ernie.’ I said as he poured himself a large measure of Brandy into a pint glass. ‘Mum’s pretty darn tough since she’s been miniature.’
‘Tough.’ Ernie chinked the pint glass against my forehead. ‘Right.’
‘And she can run… fast.’ I said to Ernie. ‘Too fast. Lightning like. That means dead quick! She ran straight underneath my bed when I first… well you know, shrunk her.’ I whispered. ‘It took me ages to find her underneath all my bed mess. I had to put her in the bathtub so she couldn’t escape until I found a rucksack without any holes in it to carry her!!’
‘Fast and tough.’ Ernie nodded, almost listening. ‘We’ll show her eh. She won’t mess with us?!’
‘We can’t harm her Ernie.’ I explained. ‘Never! She’s my Mum right. Mum!? You remember her?! M.U.M. The nice friendly lady that lets me come and sit with you and plays games no ten-year-old should be really playing. The same lady that bakes you those rock cakes that shatter your dentures.’
‘Friendly lady.’ Ernie nodded. ‘Shattered fake teeth. Right!’
‘So be careful.’ I insisted. ‘And please don’t scare her with your face.’
‘What face?’ he cried, gurning.
‘That one.’ I said as a shiver spiralled down my spine. ‘It’s not an attractive look!’
I opened up the rucksack as slowly and carefully as I possibly could.
I’d seen documentaries. And horror clips on You Tube where things just jumped out and pounced on you landing right in the middle of your face scaring you to a very early grave.
I was fond of my eyeballs. And my pert sensitive nose, petite ears and luscious lips. I still possessed an entire set of perfect milk teeth.
I didn’t need my mum to destroy my beautifully cute and innocent face.
‘Mummy,’ I whispered through the top of the rucksack in a well-practised verse I liked to call, The Creeper.
‘Mummy. It’s Jakey’, I said. ‘Ickle Jakey…you remember me? Now listen I know you are sooooo incredibly mad with me for shrinking you and all that and I am really sorry to the moon and back and beyond’, I cried honestly meaning every single word of it. ‘But I’m at Ernie’s house, the man next door. You know the man who loves your burnt rock cakes. Well…he said he’s going to help us.’ I cried. ‘Ernie’s been through a thousand wars and survived all of them and everything.’ I said. ‘Plus he’s prestige ranking on Call of Duty. Well that means he’s the best of the best of the best.’
‘Too right.’ Ernie grumbled. ‘The best.’
‘Mum you can come out’ I said. ‘But just be warned Ernie’s house isn’t as clean and tidy as ours. And he has guests living with him too. Non-human, okay?’ I mumbled, sort of generalising. Mum didn’t like anything with more than two legs. ‘So come out when you are ready, okay. Just take your time. When you feel comfortable?’
It took Mum hours to appear.
We ordered two large pepperoni pizzas and I had seven diet cokes and played fifteen rounds of Call of Duty. Ernie swore at some Australians down his headset that threatened to rip our heads off and feed them to the sharks they apparently kept in their swimming pools.’
‘My friend’s got a Delta Ray Pro Lite Miniaturisation Gun,’ Ernie shouted down the microphone. ‘And he isn’t afraid to use it!’ Ernie hissed. ‘He’s already shrunk his very own mum!’
‘Ernie!’ I hissed. ‘It’s like totally classified and completely illegal, right?’ I said slightly annoyed with my friend.
‘Sorry.’ Ernie shrugged. ‘Just wanted them to hear some home truths.’
Half an hour later, Mum decided to venture out the rucksack for the very first time. I think she needed some fresh (ish) air.
‘Hey Mum.’ I yelped. ‘Sorry for all that shouting… How you feeling?’ I said. ‘Is everything all okay? What’s it like to be totally miniature. You know it looks kinda cool!!’
I was glad Mum was covered head to boots in peanut butter and breadcrumbs. I knew that even though she often said she was allergic to peanut butter she hadn’t gone too hungry.
‘Mum. I’ve bought you over to Ernie’s house for help.’ I said. ‘You know Ernie?’
‘Hey Miniature Mum.’ Ernie waved from his gaming chair.
‘He can solve anything. He’s been through a thousand wars and all that.’ I said. ‘But first we need to take a good look at you. Make sure you’re okay?’
I’d picked up the magnifying glass that had never been touched from the study we never used and shone it straight on her face.
‘Wow.!! Seriously Mum. You look amazing!’ I cried, meaning every single word of it. ‘I mean supermodel lert…. Let’s get you down the catwalk!!’ I purred.
The wrinkles she moaned about every single day had completely disappeared. The wispy hairs she straightened religiously very single day now looked shiny and golden-like. Plus she was tiny. Miniature actually! It looked like the diet she’d been on for the last two decades had finally decided to work.
‘Mum. You are looking so good.’ I cried, close to tearful. ‘I’d take some selfies for you.’ I said before remembering I had left my phone by my bed. ‘Seriously. Take a look in the mirror.’ I said showing her a pocket mirror to her face. ‘There are no wrinkles whatsoever on your forehead and the bags under your eyes have completely disappeared.’ I said. ‘Plus you know you are always moaning about the size of your belly…. Well, what belly??’ I chortled. ‘You’re now slimmer than an eyelash!!’
I couldn’t repeat what Mum mouthed to me from behind the magnifying glass.
‘Mum. Please. You can’t use words that!’ I hissed. ‘I’m a minor… and Ernie, well Ernie’s a senior. An OAP. And you know they easily get offended using words like that!’
‘What did she say kid?’ Ernie leaned across. ‘Is she using bad words, kid?’ Ernie asked. ‘Did she say cabbage breath or pooface? Whisper them down my hearing aid. I love good bad words.’
‘No!’ I snapped standing up. ‘Mum’s just a little bit… well cross. She’ll calm down soon.’ I said. ‘We’ll get her some wine and a Terry’s chocolate orange piece or three. She loves those. And then we’ll sit and have a good think and work out how we are going to sort out this mess.’
‘If that’s what we need to do kid?’ Ernie said. ‘That’s what we’ll do.’
‘Could you possibly hold my mum so she doesn’t run away again?’ I asked Ernie, picking up Mum who kept twisting like an overcooked pretzel. ‘I need to shake out the mess in the rucksack and place her back in.’
Ernie chucked down his Xbox controller.
‘Be gentle.’ I ordered.
‘Never.’ She said giving Mum a friendly squeeze.
Ernie held Mum as tightly as a 92-year-old man could. Not so tight her brains would pop out over the dusty living room floor but just tight enough so she couldn’t have any opportunity to escape.
‘She’d make a cute pet wouldn’t she your mum!’ Ernie chuckled as he ruffled Mum’s hair. ‘She could ride on Harold’s back.’
I tried my hardest not to laugh at the thought of my mum seated on Harold, the 120-year-old constipated tortoise. It was pretty darn difficult not to laugh when every single brain cell was overwhelmed with the thought.
‘Ernie. We’ve got to be sensible, right?’ I hissed sprinkling the sandwich crumbs over the middle of his carpet that had never been cleaned.
‘Owww.’ Ernie suddenly cried nearly dropping my mum right on her head. ‘She just bit me!’
‘Mums don’t bite.’
I took back out the magnifying glass from my rucksack and peered up close and personal at Mum. She was grinning at me like she’d been possessed by The Devil. I was pretty darn positive she was chewing on a piece of Ernie’s skin too! Though I didn’t mention this to Ernie.
The thought Mum liked flesh kind of churned my stomach.
‘Mum.’ I snapped. ‘You can’t bite Ernie.’ as she continued to show off her snappy front teeth like she was in the dentist’s chair. ‘Ernie’s here to help.’ I reminded her. ‘Plus.’ I whispered. ‘You don’t want to eat his skin. He’s not that fond of washing…’
‘Shrunk Mum needs to be locked up.’ Ernie pronounced.
‘We can’t lock her up!’ I gasped. ‘She’s Mum.’
But the second Mum took a chunk out of my once perfectly ickle pixie finger, the light bulb that had been stupidly dull suddenly became far brighter.
‘We need to lock up Mum.’
‘We do, kid. We really do.’
The Edge of Me by Jane Brittan (2015 Shortlisted / YA Thriller)
It’s late but I’m still up.
I’m listening to them, listening to their voices rising and falling. I can hear them moving about the house, following each other, shouting.
My room’s at the top of the stairs on the right, and if I leave my door open, I can hear them. There’s a bolt on the outside but they don’t use it any more. I know I should put my headphones on, read a book. But it’s not that easy. Not when my name keeps coming up. And after my name, they’ll go quiet for a bit and I imagine them standing down there, looking up at the ceiling listening for me.
I don’t move a muscle. I’m a lizard on a rock.
In the morning, when I come down, it’s quiet and Mum’s sitting at the kitchen table in her coat, peeling an apple. A broken garden gnome lies on its side, watching her. She doesn’t look up when I come in.
‘Where’s Dad?’ I say.
She crunches into the apple and lets out a howl of pain. ‘Bloody, bloody teeth. Mirror! Mirror! Quick!’
I unhook the mirror from the wall and she snatches it from me and examines her mouth. The rack of dentures that runs along the top has detached itself on one side and hangs there, half in half out, with apple peel sandwiched in between. She takes it out and I watch as she tweezers out the bits. She doesn’t have any front teeth of her own and this happens a lot. But maybe not quite enough: like little shrimps in a rock pool, other pieces of food are hiding in there, a corner of toast, a curl of burnt bacon. Her face changes without teeth: dark pits under her cheek bones. She runs the dentures under the tap and makes me hold the mirror while she fits them back into place.
She smacks her jaws together to make good and a little web of spittle winds its way down her chin. She picks up the gnome.
Mum loves gnomes. She’s filled the garden, front and back, with gnomes of every shape and size. This one is lying back rather provocatively, smoking a little pipe. She’s squeezing the glue tube absent-mindedly when I say again, ‘Where’s Dad?’
‘You’re going to be late,’ she says in Serbian now.
‘Yeah, but where is he?’ I say.
More to herself than to me, she mutters, ‘Busy.’
On the table next to the gnome is a letter. The envelope’s been shredded along the top. There are greasy kisses where the butter knife did its work. It has, I think, a French stamp on it and careful handwriting. There’s no name, just our address.
I pick it up. ‘What’s in the letter?’
She grabs it, claws it up in her long fingers and pushes it into her pocket. ‘Nothing.’
‘Right,’ I shrug. I butter a piece of bread and go back to my room to get ready. I sit on the bed and hear the familiar symphony of flushing toilet, zipping and buttoning of coats, all building to the kettle-drum finale moment when the front door is snapped shut. Silence.
Mum likes to keep the communication to a minimum, unless it’s arguing with Dad. It’s like she saves it up. But there never seems to be much left over for me. I mean, she needs me, they both do – my Serbian’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than their English even after all this time and I translate for them when they need it, but otherwise they don’t bother with me much. Most of the time I feel myself osmosing into the pattern on the curtains, leeching away into the carpet like a stain. Disappearing.
I think I get it now I’m older that what happens here isn’t exactly normal. My family isn’t like other families. In fact even the word family sounds a bit too cosy for what we’ve got going.
I know not everyone’s friends with their parents. I’m sure loads of people have a worse time than I do.
But, you know.
I never cried when I was small, there was never any point in it. I couldn’t reach her, I never could. You can’t reach someone who doesn’t want you to.
I guess part of it is that there isn’t really anyone else. It’s like we just got here, the three of us, and there was no one before us and no one around us. No history, no stories, no Uncle Engelbert or Nan or Auntie Minnie. I know. I’ve asked them. Over and over, in a kind of blank litany: about Serbia, their country, about the places they lived, what they did before I was born, before they came to England.
All they say, all they ever say is: ‘It’s past. It’s gone. It’s nothing.’
And I say then, ‘So what about your parents?’
And they answer, ‘Dead. All dead.’
‘When? When did they die? How?’ I say.
And they say: ‘The war.’
The War: it’s like a high wall that I can’t see over. It’s like the Great Wall of China and it runs all around us. And behind it, outside it, is everything I need to make sense of all this. It started in 1992 and went on until 1995. Like most wars, it was all about land and more land, and like most wars, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in it or lost their homes. I think my dad was a soldier then but he never talks about it.
I ask them why they came here and they look at each other and say, ‘To start again.’
But starting again should mean something good, shouldn’t it? Something brave and big but this isn’t, and how do I know that? Because I know most other people don’t act this way. Other people fill their homes with photos and relatives and Sunday lunches. They go places and they talk to each other and argue and make up again.
At quarter past eight, I’m downstairs looking in the fridge for something to take for lunch when I see Dad in his pyjama bottoms in the garden; which is weird because he’s never in the garden. But there he is making a fire in the bin and prodding at the contents with a sharp stick. The garden’s small and paved, and in every crack in the stones, weeds of every sort rear skywards like they’re trying to get away.
I open the door and he looks up.
‘What are you doing?’ I say.
He scratches at the scar on his neck and turns to face me. His eyes meet mine for a moment then flick away. They’re watering from the smoke.
‘Burning rubbish. Just rubbish,’ is all he says and he looks down and coughs. On the ground is a pile of box files I’ve never seen before. He’s pulling out papers, tearing them into strips and dropping them gingerly into the flames. Little scraps of black film fly up from the heat.
‘I’m going now,’ I say. ‘Do you have any money? I need five pounds for a trip.’
Without taking his eyes off the fire, he takes out his wallet and offers me a note. And then, while it’s still in his hand, he says, ‘You OK? School OK?’
I stare at him. ‘Um. Yeah. It’s OK. Why?’
He sighs and then tries to turn it into a cough. ‘You are a grown-up now.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
‘You will … you will leave us soon I think. Leave home.’
‘Well … I’m only sixteen. I mean – ’
‘When I was sixteen I was in the army.’
‘But, but things are different here, now. I mean – ‘
‘Maybe.’ He shifts from one foot to the other. ‘Maybe. Goodbye Sanda.’
Slowly I stow the money in the pocket of my jeans and go back into the house. I stop on the doorstep to tie my lace and behind me I can hear the crackle and hiss of the fire.
Lauren meets me on the corner.
She tugs at my sleeves and jumps up and down. ‘I love that coat. Seriously! Where d’you get it?’
I smile, ‘Maybe.’
‘Really,’ she says, ‘looks great on you.’
‘Thanks,’ is all I can think of.
Unlike Mum, I do have all my own teeth. Apart from that, I guess the only really interesting thing about me – if you can call it that – is that I have odd eyes. I mean, odd like they’re different colours: one green, one blue. It’s funny but I think because of it, I can never quite get used to my face in the mirror.
Lauren’s shorter than me and curvy. What’s more she has a boyfriend: a real, bona fide, six-months-and-counting boyfriend. He is called Derek but you can’t have everything in life. She has a laugh like bacon frying and five older brothers, all with red hair and freckles.
We met in the lunch queue in Year Seven. I was just eleven and fresh out of primary school, and it all felt so big, so sussed. I wasn’t ready for any of it. I wanted to be sitting on the carpet in a semi-circle with my thumb in my mouth listening to a fairy story. Anyway, there I was, staring down at the floor and shuffling forward with my tray, nibbling at my fingernails like some psychotic rabbit, and she started chatting to me in such an easy way that I felt myself loosen a bit. I said stuff back to her, even made her laugh once or twice.
That’s what’s so amazing about Lauren. If she wants to do something, she just does it. She doesn’t stop to think about it or wonder whether it mightn’t be better to wait until the rain stops or the next general election or whatever, she just does it. And more than that, she’s the only friend I’ve got.
‘What’s now?’ she says.
‘Wow. Double Joe. You going to talk to him today?’
I look sideways at her. ‘What do you think?’
She pretends to consider the question. ‘Umm, what do I think? Well. I would have to say … no. I would have to say that you will creep in early and sit at the back of the class and shove your head in Romeo and Juliet or whatever, until the lesson starts, by which time you’ll know it’s safe to look up and gaze adoringly at the back of his head, while dribbling onto the desk. Sound about right?’
I laugh and push her into a hedge.
‘Listen lover,’ she goes on, ‘he’s finished with whatshername. Everyone knows that. He’s officially on the market, and if you don’t get your act together soon, someone else will.’
Joe Mullins is gorgeous. Period. He started at our school a year ago and when I saw him it was like Christmas. I’d never been into boys before him. Not really. He has warm honey eyes and a surprised sort of smile. He’s tall and dark and broad-shouldered and he has to be pretty much the boy every girl in our year wants to get with. And not only is he gorgeous but he is actually in a band.
This gives me – and – let’s not kid ourselves here – practically every other sad sack in a mini-skirt and a pair of Ugg boots, the ideal and quite legitimate opportunity to ogle him from the safety of a crowd.
I think I’ve been in love with him ever since I saw him but as far as I’m concerned, people like me don’t go out with people like him. It’s like a dog with two heads. It’s just wrong.
But there it is. He’s in my head. Joe Mullins lives in my head, just behind my left ear.
It sounds stupid. I mean how can it be possible to feel so close to someone, like you know they’re in the room before you see them, and to have hardly said a single word to them? But it’s true, I do.
I turn to Lauren. ‘Ah. So that’s it? That’s all he’s waiting for? For me to ask him out? He’s been waiting and hoping all this time? That’s such a joke. He doesn’t even know I exist.’
‘Oooh! Jesus, Sanda. He’s just a person. Just talk to him. You don’t know – he might be a closet stamp collector or keep his scabs in a biscuit tin under the bed.’
‘You mean you don’t?’
‘Just talk to him. It doesn’t matter what about: coastal erosion, the Euro, anything. Just do it.’
I smile and shrug. We’re getting close to the school gates and the familiar panic is setting in. Did I say I hated school? You see, not only can I not bring myself to actually communicate with the boy I have been in love with since Year Ten, but I’m pretty lousy at it generally. It’s like someone dropped me off on the doorstep of Planet Earth without the Rule Book: the one that tells you how to get by in life and how to communicate with other people without getting a nosebleed or a hot flush. When Lauren spoke to me for the first time, it was the fourth of November. I’d been at school for two months and it was the first proper conversation I’d had.
She’s poking me in the ribs now and saying, ‘OK. Are you going to Rosie’s party?’
‘Er … no. Don’t think so.’
‘She says you can come if you want.’ Tactful. Basically, what that means is that Lauren’s got Rosie in a corner and talked her into saying that I can come if I absolutely have to.
‘It’s fine. I’m OK.’ I go for what feels like the right mix of regret and indignation. But we both know I don’t do parties. Ever. Because, in the unlikely event of someone actually inviting me, I’d find myself getting as far as the door, finger hovering over doorbell, and the mortifying, toe-curling embarrassment about what I was wearing, or what I would or wouldn’t say, would send me running for the hills.
We go through the gates and Lauren’s already waving to a couple of friends from her Art class. It’s always about now I feel myself disappearing.
And yes, it is English first, and yes, I do get there super early and open my book. Not Romeo and Juliet but The Wasteland which seems highly appropriate considering my current social life. Miss O’Brien is standing at the front with the book as people scuff in and spill onto chairs and desks.
Joe comes in last and Miss wants to know why. I don’t look at him but out of the corner of my eye I see heads go up, ponytails being fiddled with. He sits down in the front row and takes out his book. His neck dips, he pushes his hair back and his hands rest on his head for a moment. Square hands. I breathe out quietly. I’m alone in the room with him. Cat Power’s playing ‘The Greatest’ and we’re slow dancing and he’s kissing me tenderly. I reach up and …
‘Um … Sorry. I … what was the …?’ Muffled laughter from the rest of the class.
‘Quiet! What do you understand by a wasteland?’
Everyone turns to look at me. And I say without thinking, ‘Er … something neglected? Unattractive? Something nobody notices any more?’
For a split second I look at Joe. He returns my glance with a kind of puzzled smile.
The lesson pretty much curls up and dies for me after that. It lasts forever – it always does. When everyone’s left, I pack up as usual and I’m weaving through empty desks, head down with bag and coat under my arms, when something completely unexpected happens.
I look up.
It’s Joe. Just Joe. All the air in the room gets hoovered out under the door. There’s silence and somehow even the school noise stops and all the birds stop singing and hold their breath.
He’s half playing with his phone but when I stop, he looks up and sort of squeezes himself in between the chairs and the front desk, and folds then unfolds his arms.
‘Did you …? Were you …?’ I say.
He smiles then and I manage to smile back but my face is burning. He crosses his arms again and backs into a little tray of pens which leap out onto the floor like angry salmon and scatter themselves under the tables. I’m down there before he is, pinching them up, and there’s a red one that’s rolled out of reach and I’m grabbing for it, and he’s grabbing for it and then two things happen in quick succession. The first is that our hands brush and the touch of him, it’s like hot tea on my skin and although he pulls away, I know the feeling will stay with me for the rest of the day; and the second thing is that Miss comes back into the room and sees us on the floor.
‘What are you doing down there?’ All I can see are her legs.
Joe gets up quickly and I follow, hitting my head on a table.
‘Pens,’ he says with a kind of yawning cough. ‘We … I dropped a load of pens.’
I slope up behind him and drop them into their box.
‘Out,’ she says.
I pick up my things and follow him out into the corridor. ‘Sorry,’ I say.
‘What for?’ He’s looking straight at me, smiling. His dark hair falls forward onto his face. He’s growing a scrubby beard and it suits him. He looks way older than sixteen. I lean against the wall and straighten myself up to face him, then deciding this is too out there, I fall back again into what I hope looks like a nonchalant pose. Then my trainers go and make an ugly farty squeak on the lino.
I grin and snort a laugh. I’m an idiot.
‘Just for … you know …’
He waits, shakes his head; looks up and down the corridor. Message received: he wants to leave. I make it easy. I say, ‘Well … I’ll … I’ve got …’
But he’s not ready to let me go.
‘The Wasteland. Crap isn’t it?’ he says.
Now I love poetry and I think TS Eliot is pretty cool but of course I say, ‘Huh! God Yeah! Shit.’ Again I manage a desperate piggy snigger.
He looks at me for a minute while I force myself to face him with what I hope looks like a normal expression.
‘Wow,’ he says, ‘I just noticed: your eyes.’
I look at him, waiting for an ironic laugh or a smirk. Nothing. He looks back with an intensity that completely takes me by surprise.
I struggle to fill the silence, ‘Oh. Yes. I … most people think they’re odd.’
He smiles his surprised smile. ‘No. No. They’re good. Different. I mean different good … you know …’
Long pause while I try to look casual. I look at the notice board on the wall. Apparently the girls’ toilets on the third floor block are out of use this week. Interesting. I see him shuffle a bit and I wait for him to leave but he doesn’t.
Instead he says, ‘Um … Are you free Friday night?’
Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron (2015 Shortlisted / YA Urban Fantasy)
Another Being falls as we’re driving into Edinburgh. Not here – that would be lucky, and luck doesn’t run in the Mackenzie family.
‘Number eighty-five!’ Rani shouts. ‘Just landed two minutes ago!’
She leans between the front seats, waving her phone like a newsboy hawking the evening paper. On the screen, a slim, copper-coloured woman lies slumped over a pile of broken wood and burst watermelons. Golden blood trickles out from under the debris, tracing shimmering lines in the dust.
‘Where is that?’ I ask. Perry, our West Highland Terrier, raises her head off my lap for a look, then gives a disinterested ruff and goes back to bird-watching through the car window.
‘Malaysia again,’ Rani says. ‘Some market near Kuala Lumpur.’
At least the Falls have improved my sister’s geography; she was still calling it “Koala Lumper” last month. She taps the screen and a pixelated video stutters into action. The Being is only visible for a second before the crowd swoops. Tourists form a heaving scrum around the body; a woman emerges red-faced and grinning, her cupped hands dripping with gold. My stomach churns. I’ve seen dozens of clips like this – everybody has, by now – but they still make me want to throw up.
Dad’s head swings between the video and the rain-spattered windscreen. ‘Is it badly damaged? Masculine or feminine?’
I roll my eyes. ‘She’s a woman, if that’s what you mean.’
In the full rankings of Things Dad Has Done to Piss Me Off, the way he talks about the Beings definitely makes the top ten: always ‘it’, not he or she, and ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ to describe how they look – as if they were a style of jeans, or a German noun. The papers do the same. It’s their way of making them seem less human. It’s Dad’s way of rationalising his obsession with them.
‘Besides, she’s not just damaged, she’s dead,’ I add. ‘No one could survive a fall that far.’
‘We’ll see.’ Dad gives me one of those infuriatingly patronising smiles that he does so well, and I have to physically bite my tongue to stop myself from snapping at him. Behind us, Rani keeps tapping through photos on Wingpin or 247being or one of the other hundred or so apps she’s downloaded.
‘This one looks young.’ She nudges her glasses up her nose. ‘Like, seventeen or eighteen.’
‘You’re judging by human standards, though, pet,’ Dad says. ‘We don’t know how time affects their bodies yet. It’s possible that a Being who looks twenty in our terms could be a hundred, maybe even a thousand years old.’
He launches into yet another speech about yet another theory and yet again, I don’t give a crap. Ever since the first Being fell seven months ago, our house has been like the Michael Mackenzie Centre for Really Boring Theological Research. I can’t even remember the last time he asked if Rani had lunch money or if I’d done my homework: he’s too busy cutting articles out of newspapers, sticking pins and post-its onto maps, chatting with Wingdings in Germany and New Zealand and Japan… He claims he gave up his job to look after Rani and me, but I suspect he was sacked for spending all his time debating theories on CherubIM. He makes my friend Emma’s Chris Pratt obsession look totally balanced and rational, and she once built a shrine in the art room cupboard.
He witters on and on, getting so caught up in his tales that he misses the change of the traffic lights and a pissed-off lady in the 4×4 behind us beeps her horn at him. Rani nods and ‘mmms’ and ‘uh-huhs’ along. I’m pretty sure that even she, eleven-times winner of Daddy’s Girl of the Year, can’t actually be interested in the levels of linoleic acid in the Beings’ fingernails, but she puts on a good act.
I stick my earphones in and gaze out of the window, nodding along to imaginary music. (My iPod ran out of battery just before Berwick Upon Tweed, but I’ve learnt it’s easier to pretend I can’t hear Dad’s ramblings.) Outside, the drizzly city streets pass by in a blur. Seagulls swoop across the pale grey sky, on the hunt for chips. Perry whines and scratches at the door.
‘Almost there, Per,’ I murmur, stroking the white fur of her back. ‘Just ten more minutes.’
I know how she feels. Today’s the first day of the summer holidays: ten hours in Dad’s stuffy Renault Clio isn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend it, either. I was supposed to go to Tomasz Kowalik’s barbecue tonight. I should be eating burnt hamburgers and getting tipsy on Smirnoff Ices right about now. I should be watching Medhi try to flirt with Jennie Zhang, and bickering with Sam over what’s on the playlist, and holding Emma’s hair back when she inevitably throws up in the bushes, and listening to Leah debate –
No. Not Leah. I haven’t spoken to Leah in almost three months. Funny how I keep forgetting, and yet it’s always on my mind.
Anyway. That was the sort of stuff I had planned for the summer. Nothing special – just me and my friends being our weird, stupid, awesome selves. And then came the number one item on the list of Things Dad Has Done to Piss Me Off: he went and ruined it all.
I should have known something was up when he made us blueberry pancakes last weekend. He hadn’t done that in years. Just as I’d finished drenching mine in maple syrup, he gave a nervous cough and said, ‘So, how would you two feel about spending the summer in Scotland this year?’
Rani and I almost inhaled our forks.
‘To Gran’s house?’ I spluttered. ‘For the whole summer?’ Gran’s great, but she lives in the middle of the Highlands, has only sheep for neighbours and seems to think WiFi is a type of Middle Eastern food. I can barely cope with six hours there, let alone six weeks.
‘No, no.’ He was trying to sound casual, but I could tell from his hesitation that I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. ‘To Edinburgh. I think… I think I could catch a Being there.’
My pancakes went cold as I listened, open-mouthed, to Dad’s plan. He’d done some “research” (i.e., chatting with other Wingdings on CherubIM) and, based on the fact that southeast Scotland has had the highest number of Falls in the world, had “come to the conclusion” (made a wild guess) that another one was due to land in Edinburgh “within the next few weeks” (at some point in the future, or possibly never – he’d figure out the details later).
‘Think about it, girls,’ he said. ‘We’d finally be able to find out where they’re coming from, and why they’re falling.’
I put up a fight, of course. Dad pretended to listen, but when I finally ran out of reasons why this was the worst idea since chocolate teapots, he just smiled and ruffled my hair. (I hate people touching my hair. It’s been seven months since I cut it, but I’m still working out how to avoid looking like Sid Vicious with bed head.)
‘I know it’s a long shot, Jaya,’ he said, ‘but I really need to do this.’
The car glides through a puddle, splashing the windows with murky rainwater. My phone buzzes: a WhatsApp from Emma. Look what sad sausages we are without you! Attached is a photo of her and Medhi pretending to cry, their frowns hidden behind curved hotdogs. Above them, the London sky is a streak of brilliant blue. They’re only four hundred miles away, but it feels like four thousand.
I’m about to reply when Rani interrupts with another update. My sister is on constant Being-watch. She could tell you when and where each one fell, what he or she looked like, sometimes even how much their blood and feathers sold for. Personally I think there’s something kind of creepy about an eleven-year-old trawling the internet for news of dead bodies, but Dad seems to find it useful.
‘Listen to this,’ she says. ‘Today’s news means that seven Beings have now landed in Malaysia. The only other country to have hosted as many Falls is Scotland, also with seven; Russia has seen five, and Algeria four.’
I twist in my seat to face Dad. ‘What if you got it wrong? What if the next one falls in Malaysia? I mean, they’ve had just as many, so it’s just as likely, right?’ I kick my right foot onto the dashboard, jab a toe at the sealskin-coloured sky. ‘Maybe we should be on our way to Kuala Lumpur right now. At least it’d be sunny there.’
‘Malaysia’s a lot bigger than Scotland, Jaya,’ Dad says, swatting my trainers away. ‘Plus, the Falls over there have been scattered all around the country, whereas here they’ve had seven within thirty miles of the city. There’s no comparison. If I’m going to catch one anywhere, it’ll be in Edinburgh.’
Rani pokes my shoulder. ‘Anyway, would you really rather we went to Malaysia? I’m pretty sure they don’t have E4 there, Jay.’
Dad laughs. I grit my teeth, trying to still the anger bubbling up inside me. He’s so stupid. This whole “plan” is so stupid. You can’t catch a Being. You just can’t. They fall at insane speeds. They’ve smashed through buildings, turned highways into craters… one caused a mini tidal wave when she landed in the South Pacific, and another accidentally killed a woman when he fell in a town square in Armenia. It’s not a bloody Loony Tunes cartoon: you can’t just stick a trampoline or a bouncy castle out and spring them back to safety.
There’s no way of telling when the next one will turn up, either. So far, eighty-four (eighty-five, now, with this latest one in Malaysia) have fallen around the world. Brazil, Malawi, Romania, Tonga… all over the place. Sometimes three will tumble down in one day, and sometimes weeks will go by before another appears. There are scientific and religious institutions pouring billions into working out a pattern, but nobody seems to have come close. It’s not like Dad, former Sales & Marketing Manager for Tomlinson Cigarettes, now stay-at-home layabout, is going to be the one to crack the code.
He makes a right turn onto a brightly lit street of shops and restaurants. Outside British Home Stores, a man in a kilt and tin foil wings is playing something that sounds vaguely like Angels by Robbie Williams on the bagpipes. Dad sings along, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
‘And when I’m lying in my bed, thoughts running through my head, and I feel that love is dead…’ He mimes playing the notes on a keyboard with his left hand. ‘I’m loving angels instead.’
Rani joins in for the chorus. They belt it out together, carefree and off-key. ‘And through it alllllllll, she offers me protection…’
I can feel the excitement crackling off them like static. A dash of pity simmers my anger. Dad really thinks he can do this. He actually thinks he’s going to catch an angel.
‘…a lot of love and affection, whether I’m right or wrong…’
Well, he’s wrong. Really bloody wrong.
If you ask me, there is no code to crack. The Falls are just random.
Red God/Black God by Dorothy Massey (2015 Shortlisted / 12+)
The sound of Mother’s voice startles me. My hand jolts and my pencil zigzags across the page of my notebook. I sigh and make for the entrance of the hut, pushing my notebook quickly into a dark corner on the way out.
Mother is laying clothes on the hedge to dry.
“Oh, there you are,” she says as she grabs a blue kanga from the pile of laundry. “What took you so long?”
“I couldn’t get the fire to light,” I lie.
Mother laughs. “Honestly Neema, I don’t know why you find it so hard.” She lifts the patterned cotton dress, smoothing out its creases. Raising it higher to place it on the hedge, she flinches with pain. The dress drops to the ground. I pick it up, wipe off the dust, and place it on the hedge.
When I stoop to take another item from the pile, Mother is sat on the earth, her almond brown eyes brimming with pain. She clutches her left arm, then quickly releases it when she sees my concern. The small pile of newly washed clothing lies in a heap at her side: the patterned cloaks we use to tie my baby sister, Grace, onto our backs, my brother, Peter’s red shuka blankets, my favourite yellow Sunday dress. I take some cloaks from the top; spread them on the hedge to dry.
“What’s wrong, Mother?” I ask.
“Nothing. I’m okay!”
Mother forces a smile and gathers up the clothes. But I see that she flinches again as she stands up too quickly. I trace a line of yellow beads on the cuff of her robe.
“I’ll do this,” I say, taking the laundry from her.
“Thank you,” she replies.
Mother disappears into our hut. I am still laying out clothes when Father approaches so I am not aware of his presence until he speaks.
I turn to face him and bow my head instinctively, waiting for his blessing. But Father doesn’t place his hand on my head and ask after me, then Mother and Grace. Today he walks straight past. Is Father angry with me? Have I done something wrong? I raise my head.
“How are you, Father?” I ask.
But he does not reply. I follow Father’s long back with my eyes as, draped in his red cloak, he moves with the long-limbed grace of a giraffe along the hedge. I hope he will enter our hut, but he doesn’t. Gazing up into the sky, he walks straight past and on through our boma, past the cluster of huts belonging to his wives. He sits on a rock just outside First Wife’s gate.
Usually he sits tall, but today his back is bowed. He gazes at the ground below his feet. This huddled figure on the rock is not the Father I know. Is he angry? Or is he sad? I decide to ask Mother. Maybe she will know.
My eyes adjust to the darkness in the hut. Mother is in the back corner by the fire trying to feed Grace, but Grace is restless. She makes mewing sounds like those of a cat. Mother speaks softly to Grace. There is a moment of silence, then soft sucking sounds as my sister feeds.
“Neema, is that you?”
I step forward and light a lamp which casts a shadow of Mother and Grace onto the wall. In her shadow, Mother’s earrings swing slightly; her necklaces forming a jagged tier below her neck. I inch forward again.
“Mother, do you know …?”
But I don’t finish my question. I step into something warm and sticky. Looking to the floor, I see an overturned pan of goat stew.
“What’s happened here?”
“I was lifting it off the fire,” replies Mother. “It was a bit too heavy.”
For as long as I can remember Mother has made goat stew in this same pan. Why is it too heavy now? It has never been too heavy before. I pick up the pan, peer in. There’ll be enough stew left for dinner.
I place the pan back on the open fire and fetch a broom. The stew sticks in lumps to it, so I scoop up handfuls and throw them onto the fire. They spit and sputter, filling the hut with a dense black smoke. I cough as I waft smoke towards the air holes to help it escape.
By the time I’ve finished, Grace has been fed. She is clutching one of Mother’s fingers.
“Could you take Grace with you when you tend the goats today, Neema?” asks Mother. “I’m a little tired.
I like to take Grace. I like the feel of her little body on my back. I like Grace’s little fingers in my hair, her sweet baby smell.
“Of course,” I say. I take my sister from Mother, wrap her in a cloak and tie her to my back. She wriggles and cries.
“Shush,” I whisper. “You’re like a little snake.” I smooth her fluffy baby hair. Grace settles.
“I saw Father just now,” I say.
Mother grabs my hand. Her eyes search mine.
“Did he speak?”
“He said, ‘Neema.’ ” Mother looks hopeful, but I add, “Then he walked right past.” She lets my hand fall. “I think he might be angry with me,” I say.
Mother’s eyes widen. “I don’t think so, Neema. No, I’m sure he’s not angry with you.”
“Maybe he’s sad then. He didn’t bless my head; walked on past without a word.”
Mother turns away, but not before I register the shock on her face.
“Do you know what’s wrong with Father?” I ask.
“No,” she says. But I have a feeling that Mother does know, that the reason for Father’s behaviour is her fault, not mine.
I shrug and leave the hut, squinting as the bright sun hits my eyes. With my head held high, despite the heaviness in my heart, I walk past the huts towards the goat enclosure. I’m hoping Father will still be on the rock. But he isn’t. He has gone.
The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2016 is currently open, with entries invited until 20th November 2016