Opening Pages from the 2017 Bath Children’s Novel Award Shortlist

Jack Dark and the Figment Hunters

(middle grade, fantasy)

 

 

THE ONEROI ARCHIVES

PROLOGUE

 

The Professor gazed down at the shrunken head, swinging it slowly like a pendulum.

‘Old friend,’ he sighed, ‘something’s changed out there tonight. I’m sure of it. And I fear… I fear I may fare no better than you in what’s to come…’

There had been a shift, a ripple; a Telepath of his power was rarely wrong about such things. Still, he needed to be certain. He placed what remained of his predecessor – a leathery wrinkled thing, more walnut than human – back among the other trinkets and curiosities that crowded his desk, and reached for his cane.

Minutes later, he was aboard the secret wooden escalator. He arrived in the ancient library almost exactly on the twelfth clang of its great bell. A bright moon glowed through the mullioned windows onto thousands of scrolls and manuscripts. As if luminous in this curious light, on the top-most shelf, one alone stood out. Peering up at its midnight-blue binding, the Professor shivered. No one had unlocked it in his lifetime.

He reached for the key that hung round his neck, and as he did so brushed the ring that shared its chain. Pausing, he turned the metal band between his thumb and forefinger, admiring the exquisite craftsmanship, the intricate detail of the silver dragon swallowing its own tail.

He set down his cane, placed the foot of his good leg on the first step of the ladder and wearily clambered to retrieve it: the book he had hoped never to open.

PART I: DAUNTINGS HILL

 

Sleepwalking was the first sign.

Jack Dark had been waking up everywhere from the bathtub to the staircase, even in next-door’s garden with Monty licking his face. He had put it down to being in a different bed, a house where he felt like a stranger.

Then came the Dwams. Not the regular staring-out-the-window sort of daydreams, but sudden hallucinations – glimpses of another place, of crashing waves and a swirling wind. They seemed to split his mind in half and struck at the very worst moments: on Monday, he’d passed out in the middle of Chemistry, knocking over a Bunsen burner that set fire to Bruno Chuggley’s trousers; the next one got him booted off the U13 football team moments before the whistle blew for the biggest match of term. The school nurse said they must be some form of panic attack (‘hardly surprising, given his background’). The headmaster dismissed them as attention seeking. As if it wasn’t tricky enough being the new boy.

***

 

 

 

Me Two

(middle grade, fantasy)

 

DEDICATION

Statistics say there are less than 1 in 18 billion people born like me – into one body and then, pow, straight into another one.  Living two lives in the same lifetime, in two different bodies, in two different time zones. I am writing my story specially for the few of you.  Hopefully my book will fall into your hands – at least one pair of them.  For, as you’ll see, I could have done with some instructions.

 

THE END OR THE BEGINNING?

 

“Tonight I’m going to die.  Tonight I’m going to live.”  I’m whispering these words over and over to myself, like my mum does with her mantras.  Not that I believe in mantras, but since both those major things are more than probably going to happen in the next few hours, I’ll try anything for some extra courage.

The hospital room I’m standing in is dimly-lit with a sickly yellow light.  Every breath I take is stained with the acid stink of Dettol. It must be about four in the morning.  The time when they say most deaths occur.  I know that because I looked it up on the internet. Knowledge is power and I need a bit of power tonight, that’s for sure. Anything could happen here, all of it terrifying.

I’m looking down at the ghostly face of a girl of nearly fourteen – exactly my age.  Machines are buzzing and bleeping all around her metal bed, flickering green onto her motionless face.  A face I know so well.

I feel sick myself, with fear.  It grips my stomach and I whisper again:  “Tonight I’m going to die.  Tonight I’m going to LIVE”.

***

 

 

Milton Hits the Headlines

(middle grade, animal humour)

Chapter 1: Running and Screaming

 

When humans scream, little spiders run.

So when Zoe started screaming, Milton ran in the opposite direction as fast as his eight little legs would carry him. Scuttling at top speed along the wooden floor, he scanned around with his side eyes, searching for somewhere safe, somewhere dark and dusty. He wondered if he could make it all the way home.

Zoe yelled up the stairs to her mum. Something about ‘IT’S GETTING AWAY!’ and Milton heard thudding footsteps coming from the landing.

Keep running!

Running away was preschool stuff—basic training. Spiders didn’t usually stop to think about it. But then Milton wasn’t your usual spider.

He was a thinker.

And right now, Milton’s brain was working overtime.

Zoe can’t be screaming at me? Surely she recognises her friendly false widow spider from the skirting board? Utterly un-screamworthy, utterly un-terrifying, occasionally mistaken for a raisin.

Milton was hardly the stuff of nightmares.

Gah! Why did house humans need such enormous rooms anyway?

As he ran, he became more and more worried. He liked Zoe, the smaller of his two house humans. He felt they had an understanding—a sort of ‘live and let live’ policy. And anyway, she wasn’t the screaming type, more of the ‘pretend-it’s-not-there-and-hope-it-doesn’t-move’ type. She’d occasionally greeted him with a surprised ‘eek’ if he appeared out of the blue (like from under the sofa while the telly was on, for example) but nothing like this. This was a full-on shriek—an all-eight-leg-wobbler as his dad would’ve said.

Has something changed between us?

***

 

The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings

(young adult, comedy drama)

 

Chapter 1

Saturday 23rd September

 

Lacey had gone too far this time.

We were supposed to be living life as normally as possible – not letting our “current situation” defeat us. So you could say that keeping up our sibling rivalry was about as normal as you could get. Only the rivalry had just been stepped up a notch, and had – thanks to my older sister – left normal levels eating her dust.

That’s how me and Jake found ourselves stranded, butt-naked, in the deep end of The Prince Regent swimming pool – clinging to the side with one hand, covering our crown jewels with the other. A few people who’d witnessed Lacey (also known as Satan In A Skirt) and her best friend Paige rip off our trunks ten minutes earlier, were pointing and sniggering. Worst of all, Mattie Clemence – who was idly doing backstroke up and down the pool – was likely to notice us at any minute.

‘For God’s sake, Jake! A handstand competition? You should’ve known it was a prank,’ I groaned.

You’re her brother, Rolo. You should’ve known!’ he protested.

Half-brother.’ I didn’t admit that I’d hoped my well-perfected handstand would attract Mattie’s attention. (It didn’t.)

‘Yeah, well I can’t help it if I get distracted by your sister in a bikini.’

Half-sister.’

‘I thought she was flirting with me…’ Jake rolled his eyes.

‘Jake, for the millionth time, she’s not interested in Year 9 boys. She’s not interested in anyone who isn’t Curt the Cock Cripps – except for Zac Efron.’

‘Well on the bright side, at least Curt the Cock isn’t here to make things worse.’

As if things could get any worse! My teeth were chattering and Jake’s lips were turning blue. I watched as Mattie completed another length, flipped around and kicked off again without taking her eyes off the ceiling. In under three weeks, Bevensleigh High’s newest arrival had somehow managed to take over my brain without even knowing I existed. And although I really wanted her to acknowledge my existence, now was seriously not the time.

 

***

The Vessel

(young adult, fantasy)

 

One

Its Last Song

 

 

The city was built on a sharp mountain that jutted improbably from the sea, and the sea kept trying to claim it back. When the tide rose, it swallowed up the city’s lower streets. When the tide fell, it spat them back out again, but left its mark. Fresh mussels clung to windowsills, and fish flailed on the cobblestones. That grey morning, once the tide had retreated, a whale was found on a rooftop.

The pale dawn brought with it the people of the northern waterfront, who couldn’t fail to spot the creature. They gathered along the top of the seawall, craning over the parapet to gape at the roof below.

“It’s a sign from the God!” yelled the old preacher, his breath condensing in the freezing air. The crowd murmured incredulously.

“It’s not a sign of the Enemy,” snorted a sailor nearby. “It must have got stuck there at high tide.”

“How long will it live?” said a fisherman.

But nobody knew. The whale lay on its belly, stretched from one end of the rooftop to the other. It had beached itself on the chapel of St Bartholomew, whose rooftop poked above the waves at low tide, four tall spires at each corner. Slate had shattered and wood splintered beneath the whale’s bulk, yet the rooftop held all the same. The chapel was old but resilient, and would withstand the weight of a fifty-foot whale as well as it had withstood the sea.

“Can’t we help it, mum?” said a small, frightened boy, peering out from beneath a messy fringe. He watched the massive, wing-like flukes of the creature’s glossy tail, following their sorry rise and fall. Overhead, hungry seagulls screeched and seemed to laugh.

“It’s much too big, dear,” said his mother. “There’s no way to move it safely.”

“So it’s going to die?” he said, and no one else spoke because they all knew it would. The boy folded his arms across the parapet, watching the animal in dismay. He was so engrossed that he didn’t notice the girl who’d snuck in at his side, drawn down from the streets above.

She was years older than him, almost an adult, with tangled, blonde hair mussed up from a night of broken sleep. She leant forwards to inspect the whale below, and bit her lip.

“Its own weight is going to kill it,” she said.

The boy stared up at her, drawing close to his mother’s side.  The girl’s face was pale and drawn, with three thin, red scratches down one cheek. She smelt faintly of fireworks. What was worse, she was dressed like a man, and not an upstanding one either. She wore a crimson scarf, and a coat that was long and hooded, stitched together from an assortment of weathered cloth and grey sealskin.

“It’s going to crush its own lungs sitting there,” she said, speaking more to herself than anyone else.

The boy’s lips quivered. He reached for his mother’s hand.

“Anna, could you go and get my flensing tool?” the blonde girl said, turning to a second girl standing right behind her. This one looked to be the same age as she was, fifteen maybe. She was dressed in a huge woollen blue jumper, and heavy black boots. She had a mess of curly ginger hair and looked bored. The blonde girl continued.

“If we don’t cut this whale open soon, it will explode.”

 

***