A sea boy with nothing to lose goes above ground to save his war torn world and finds a girl up for changing people’s views.
A teenage illusionist is trapped in her cellar with a fresh corpse as the Great Fire of London rages outside.
A Queensland boy and his friends must camp wild and solve wildlife clues in a fierce race to save a rainforest reserve.
THE GHOSTS OF REGENTS TERRACE
Edinburgh maid and aspiring photographer Lottie must capture evidence of a ghostly fraud to expose the truth and save her friends.
THE SKY OVER REBECCA
When mysterious, inexplicable prints appear in the Stockholm snow, ten-year-old Kara must discover where, or rather who, they’re coming from.
The hospital was little more than a long tent, staked to the sandy cave-bottom and crammed with beds. Jellylamps hanging from hooks on the ceiling cast a greenish-blue glow through the water.
Elter Vaar had been discharged earlier that evening, after three weeks, and given ten minutes to pack his few belongings. The bed would be needed by someone else tonight—many people, probably—but Elter simply couldn’t summon the energy to move. The moment he left the shelter of this hospital, he’d be assigned a dwelling tent and handed a ration card and be expected to somehow keep living.
He watched the walls breathe in and out with the current. He had heard that deep breaths helped with fear, anxiety, and sadness. The problem was, he’d stopped feeling those days ago. What were you supposed to do when you weren’t feeling anything at all?
At least the amputation was a success. That was what the doctors had told him, almost managing to smile. After the explosion ripped off half of Elter’s tail, the rest had gotten infected. They’d had to remove it or he would have died. Now all that was left was a short stump beneath his groin. Elter liked to call it The Success.
The head doctor, Palina, had helped him learn to swim again. It wasn’t impossible. But what had once been effortless, thoughtless, the simplest joy, now took every drop of Elter’s strength and concentration. His body felt like a shapeless weight that had to be dragged through the water by his arms. Once, he had won races in school. Sprints. Never the long-distance swims. He’d never had the patience or determination for those.
“Hey, Elter,” said a voice.
Swimming up to his bed was Niko, a boy from Elter’s school, two years older, whose father Arno was the commanding officer here in the refugee caves. Niko was stocky, cocky, and sly, with shoulder-length silver hair that for some reason girls liked. His silvery-blue tail was thickly muscled. He, like everyone, had lost someone: his older brother, killed in battle.
“I’m sorry about your tail,” Niko went on. “And your family.”
Elter’s family was a gaping black abyss in his mind. He didn’t go too close to it, or he might fall in.
* * *
The day before a dead body turns up in her father’s cellar, Flick Cutler is preparing to stab herself in front of fifteen drunks at The Boar’s Head Tavern.
There is not much light. Flick’s face is illuminated by a single guttering candle on the beer-stained table where she sits. Her dark brown eyes appear black in the gloom and her raven hair falls over high cheek bones. She is looking down, drawing all attention to the back of her hand, cleverly diverting attention from the blade-switch that she makes effortlessly; she has been practising this for weeks. The fingers of her left hand are splayed out across a chopping board. This is a stunt they have seen a hundred times but in this dark corner of London, excitement is rare and welcome.
Money is changing hands and the whole place reeks of sweat. It has been another sweltering day and the windows, open in the vain hope of breeze, yawn uselessly into the night. The beams, the walls, the floor, are all parched like the sand in the timer that is brought to the table. Althea, the landlady, has agreed to act as judge since she is the last person that anyone in the tavern would dare to cross. The blood stains on the rolling pin she keeps in her apron are allegedly human. Althea knows that such activities are banned by the City of London authorities and that if she is caught again, they will remove her licence, but with at least two of the city’s magistrates already asleep at the bar, she considers it a risk worth taking. Flick’s trick with the knife promises customers will stay much later; those who win money will lose it just as quickly to the drink.
“100. No more.” Says a man with a voice like gravel.
“You must be joking,” Smythy roars back. “She done 121 last time. It’ll be more.” He lisps through his broken front teeth. “126.” A final change of coins clink into a hush.
Usually, Flick will spread her hand out on the table and stab the gaps between her fingers as quickly as she can. Flick’s skill at the knife is unrivalled and people have long since stopped challenging her in favour of marvelling at her skill and dexterity. This time, it would be different though. Flick quite literally had a surprise up her sleeve.
Althea holds up her hand to indicate silence. This is it. Flick has practised this stunt a thousand times since reading about it in one of Blaise’s “forbidden” books. The specially adapted version of her father’s gutting knife is raised to her ear as though she is listening for the perfect time to stab.
She brings the knife down hard – straight through the back of her hand and into the chopping board with an unsympathetic thud.
* * *
I should probably begin with the window-tapping.
Those were the pre-Stargap days. I hardly knew a possum from a pademelon, back then. I had never heard of Project Ark. And I definitely couldn’t have imagined that one day I would sit here in the room behind Mrs. Owen’s office, surrounded by field notebooks, thinking back over the craziest and most unforgettable six weeks of my life.
No, I had no idea what I was about to get into. But even if I had, the tapping at the window wouldn’t have seemed connected to any of it.
I was sitting at my desk next to a stack of eleven homework assignments when I heard it the first time. Remmy had been having dreams about it for a week already—nightmares, really—and I was getting used to being shaken awake in the dark. The window-elf, he would sob. It was small, he said, but it was evil, and the sound of it tapping at the window was the sound of it getting closer and closer to breaking through the glass and reaching its spidery fingers in and whisking him off to the zoo, where he would sit behind the glass and watch people stare and draw sketches of him all day long. Sometimes the victim was me, instead, and he said that was even scarier.
I would always turn on the light when that happened. Then I’d tuck Remmy back in and read him animal books until he fell asleep again. But it never crossed my mind that there was really something out there.
Until that afternoon. It was a Thursday at the end of August, two weeks after my thirteenth birthday—the cool and breezy middle of the dry season. If I hadn’t promised Remmy, I would never have kept our window closed. But there I was, reading a short report on the history of slippers (that’s right: slippers), when the tapping began. It was just a single note that first time, kind of soft. I walked over to the window and pushed it open.
There was no one in the backyard. I opened the window even further and stuck my head out. No pesky house geckos clinging to the wall, no bugs smashed flat against the glass—nothing but the wind, blowing a couple of leaves from Mr. Redfern’s mango tree across his yard into ours.
I shut the window with a sigh and sat back down. With eleven assignments still to go before tomorrow, and with one of them involving way too many slippers, I couldn’t afford to waste any time.
Eleven assignments. Anyone would think I had the worst Year 7 teacher in Queensland, if not the entire planet. And the truth is, Mr. Baines does have his faults (an unhealthy obsession with ancient history, for example), but only three of those eleven assignments were my own.
* * *
THE GHOSTS OF REGENTS TERRACE
The ghosts came into my life one Thursday teatime and turned everything upside down. It had been a normal day in the kitchen until then. I’d just shoved a sausage under my cap like I usually did on a Thursday. On Fridays it was a bit of fish. On Saturdays a mutton chop. There were no pockets in our poor house pinafores – Matron didn’t trust us orphans.
‘That extra banger better be for me,’ Bella McDonald said.
‘Annie’s sick. She needs it more than us,’ I said, ladling gravy onto sausage and mash for the Master and his Missus, splashing some on my pinafore.
One of the girls whisked away the meals to the Master’s dining room, leaving a delicious whiff of onions and gravy hanging in the air. The smell was so thick – I could almost lick it.
I picked up the potato pot, carried it to the sink.
‘We all agreed that whoever was ill would get the extra food,’ I said in a loud voice, looking over to the other girls. But I knew they couldn’t hear me for the scrape of the scrubbing brushes, sloshing of water and banging of pots that echoed around the high beamed roof.
Bella bent down, stuck her nose in my face. ‘If I don’t get that sausage, Lottie Frew, I’ll tell Matron that Miss Snooty Drawers nicked it.’
She’d been drying a copper milk pan – she flung it to the floor where it clanged as it bounced on the flagstones, then clattered to a halt.
‘I want that banger,’ she screamed, grabbing me by my hair, trying to haul my bonnet off. Her eyes and nostrils were wide, as if anger was trying to break out of her big pink face.
The door hinges squealed and Matron burst in with a visitor.
Everything in the kitchen stopped. The girls stood as still as the tall candles flickering on the table. The only sounds came from the scuttling of mice behind the skirting boards and the tick-tick-tick of the giant clock on the wall.
‘These are our orphans,’ Matron said. ‘We’ve been training them up. One of these girls will be an excellent maid for you, Mrs Bagshott.’
* * *
THE SKY OVER REBECCA
Somebody had made a Snow Angel in a perfect white snow drift down by the lake.
There was something odd about it.
Something about it didn’t look right.
I saw it from the window of a bus heading home from town. We were on a bridge, high above the frozen lake. I looked down, and there in the woods on the shore was the Snow Angel.
There had been something strange about it.
I walked home from the bus stop in the last light of the day. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, in early January, and the sun had already set. All around me the city lingered in a grey twilight. Nautical Twilight, my Grandfather called it, meaning there was still enough light left in the sky for ships to navigate by.
It grew darker.
Lights came on as I approached our building. The snow on the forecourt was pockmarked with three-pronged talons: Crows’s footprints. Someone had scattered seed here, and the crows had eaten it, going back and forth, this way and that, until they’d left a web of tracks in the snow.
I remembered the Snow Angel.
I saw what was wrong with it.
There had been no footprints. No footprints leading to it, and no footprints leading away from it either.
It was as if someone had dropped out of the sky and lain down in the snow and then vanished.
I looked up at the windows of our apartment, on the seventh floor. They were dark. Lena, my mother, was still at work. She wouldn’t be home for another hour or so.
I thought about the Snow Angel.
I decided to go back.
* * *
The winner of the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2019 will be announced by award judge and literary agent Lauren Gardner at a reception in central Bath on Thursday 13th February 2020. We’ll tweet the winning novel from the ceremony after 8pm @bathnovelaward with the full winner’s announcement posted here after 10am on Friday 14th February.
Read the full shortlist announcement here