The Children Who Wouldn’t…

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After writing and having published a dozen adult non-fiction books (mainly under another name), a few years ago I published my first children’s adventure story. I now thought to serialise it here in anticipation of publishing the sequel which I’ve already written and for which I’m doing some illustrations.

I’m still painting and  see writing as tangental and very relevant to it – which becomes more clear as the story progresses.

The original Children Who Wouldn’t is available for a staggering 99p (http://getbook.at/TheChildrenWho or ID: BD00EDNBDSS on Amazon searches).

I’d be very grateful for any feedback and reviews. Please circulate freely.

Anyway, let’s begin the adventure!

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ONE – SHADOWS OF THE FUTURE

Fuming

When misery turns to anger, weird things can happen.

Once, years before on a winter’s day, Sammy had watched the sea, angry as hell, erupt from a clifftop. Great spouts of surf flung high into a battering wind – the whole thunderous din pierced by gulls shrieking hysterically. The gulls seemed to turn into tattered white rags, hurled about like baby ghosts gone mad.

That must have been when she had both grown up and got let down. For instead of writhing on the ground like red hot lava boiling out of a volcano, gobbets of frothy ocean lolled about on the cliff top, getting caught up in the grass and scrub. It reminded her of when Dummy had overfilled the washing machine and suds spewed out all over the kitchen floor! That had been funny…

But that was then. Now, nothing was normal, or funny, any more. Energy, that stuff that makes you angry, was infested with misery. So there she sat, scowling at the sea – not wild anymore but sprawling far below, dead calm, smothered by a duvet of heavy air. It had a buttery look as though you could spread it on bread. But ‘peaceful’? No, Sammy couldn’t be fooled. It was smirking, more like, and still the demon breathed quietly on.

So think of something else! Perhaps she could see beneath the surface? Into that black nightmare world where terrible things slid or crawled or floated or just hung motionless – as though on wires that you couldn’t see. The ocean, she decided, was massive and irritable – a bit like her school – full of cowards and bullies. Right now, deep down, it waited. Anyone could see that. And Sammy knew it, and she knew something else: that nightmares begin with dreams. And her best dream, begun years ago, had turned bad.

But how was this possible – bathed in daylight here on Eyrie Rock – with her twin brother, David? They were perched on a ledge which was high, narrow, hidden and dangerous – all things which seemed good just then.

Air thick as grease smeared their hair. The island’s spirit guardian had become a monster. David was more sullen than angry, or simply not letting it show. Grouchy in his own black mood, he gave the tiniest shrug when Sammy suggested the serpent was near. If everything else was wrong, why not this? Could a spirit, a friendly serpent, become a demon? Just one more thing to worry about.

Being born at the same time, nearly eleven years ago, was where the similarity usually ended. Now though, they stared out together, across the lagoon towards the other twins – the two Giants – dimly aware of the tide going out. The sea was swallowing itself into itself so that a smattering of rocks and smaller islets came peeking up through a dazzle of glittering crisscross creases, as if silver turquoise paper had been scrunched up and flattened out again.

The Giants were the biggest of the little off-islands. Not really big but their craggy heads would stay above the surface when the tide slunk in again, and the sea would lick the hems of the dull green shawls of vegetation which now fidgeted slightly in the spirit breath.

No-one lived on those islands. Did they?

Sammy sighed, her straw-coloured hair curtaining wide eyes which now and then glistened. Sometimes, light would catch her cheekbones, making her face shine; her chin too – a chin which in normal times, was well capable of saying ‘push-off’, but, as we have seen, now was not one of those times. Suddenly, not looking at her brother, she muttered, ‘Those pole things… What are they? What… what d’you… Do you think…’ Her voice stammered out into stagnant air, with nowhere to go.

David, hair floppier, darker, was usually more serious – solemn almost, you might say. At last he grunted, ‘Locos, innit? Gotta be,’ before adding under his breath, ‘Creeps… muggers… saddos!

‘Uh?’ Sammy prompted, glad of the response, of any response. ‘Shadows? What shadows? What for though?’

‘Oh, how’d I know? Peggin’ out new fields… Or summat.’

Sammy kicked a stone off the ledge. It didn’t go rattling and bounding down the cliff in a satisfying way but got stuck in some grass. ‘Lots already,’ she said.

‘Well, I dunno. Buildin’ something then.’ How’d I know?’ he repeated.

‘Must be big.’

‘Look, don’t think about it, right?’ David shrank back into himself. He wasn’t going to visit or even think about The Refuse. In lighter days, it was the name they had given to a secret place forgotten and ignored by the local islanders [who they called ‘locos’ for short – something they had thought terribly funny in the old days.] Now it was forgotten no longer, and the twins had lived long enough to know what that meant.

The Leighwards

This year, they had come earlier than usual – the Leigh family. But otherwise it was as it had always been. Each year their mum and dad went without loads of things to save the money to make IT possible. ‘It’ was a pilgrimage. And every time, as though released from a bully, Sammy and David with Jojo and Freddy – their younger sister and brother – sped to The Refuse. It was always the first thing they did.

But this time, instead of finding a special place waiting patiently – bursting with possibility, buzzing with insects, studded with flowers – they were stopped dead in their tracks by poles stabbed into the ground – painted in garish red and white hoops, so you couldn’t miss them. The world darkened then, and something died.

When scouts from two opposing armies stumble up against each other, do they fight or run? Maybe, as now, they just stand and gawp at each other, speechless. Nothing moved – no animal, no living thing of any kind. High spirits dashed and pinned to the ground, just like the stakes in the short turf where the rabbits grazed. It had to be some evil design of man. They just knew it.

From then on, gloom ruled. The serpent watched and waited. If The Refuse was doomed, so was the whole damned place. Damned, indeed! A sanctuary for years – ever since they first came to the islands which trailed the sea and glistened, as though left behind by a giant water snail. They called these islands The Leighwards; nothing else, EVER.

And they never told anyone that the islands were probably the Lost Land of Lyonesse or, even, Atlantis. This special one they called ‘Balerium’, to keep it different from viz-speak and make it their own. For sure, it was the finest hiding place in the world. The best way of avoiding jobs, forgetting school, being nice to neighbours and relatives, and all that.

Now it was different: Easter not summer, and the spirit breathed danger when once it seduced. So, that was it, enchantresses could be bad as well as good.

Not being Outsiders

Now, it is a known fact that oceans mingle all over the world, swapping bits of life and information, and like a moat round a castle, they protect as well. This was why a few scrawny wind-bashed Elm trees had survived the deadly plague that, years before, had killed off their cousins back home. High over Freddy’s head, breathed on by the same spirit, thin leafy branches dashed the sky into messages as weird and unreadable as those coming from the sea; flickering like a TV gone wrong.

Freddy lay back and squinted through half-closed eyes. It seemed to make things clearer. Glistening points of light danced and joined into weird shapes, moving across the blood‑red screen of his eyes, and reminding him of cars in the distance picked out by the sun glinting on glass and polished metal.

Then his brow creased in puzzlement, and turning over, he propped himself up on his elbows, freckly face dominated by green, curious eyes. ‘Hoi!’ he demanded loudly of his sister, who at nine was exactly a year and a half older. ‘How many times we been here before?’

Jojo’s hair was longer and darker than Sammy’s. It forked down either side of her forehead, touching the corners of eyes that one day would mince boys’ hearts. ‘Where?’ she scowled, scarcely moving, brooding sulkiness.

‘Here,’ said Freddy. ‘This island. This one of course.’

‘Dunno. Why? Four maybe?’ Jojo moved slightly. ‘Mad’s been here more.’ [They had once muddled up the names for their parents – Dad had become Mad or something similar – Maddy, Mud or Muddy. It had been their Mum’s misfortune to become Dum or Dummy. Together they were the Elders or Elderleighs or other things, as we’ll see.]

Freddy persisted. ‘So how many times before you’re not a viz anymore?’ [vizare visitors, who come in the summer.]

Jojo continued to smoulder behind closed eyes. ‘You always will be ’cos you weren’t born here,’ she said.

‘That’s stupid,’ pressed on Freddy, regardless.

‘So what if it is?’

Freddy took a run at it. ‘Well if I came here when I was a day old and never went away and died when I was a hundred I wouldn’t be a stranger would I?’

‘No, you’d be dead.’

Freddy glared at her. ‘Look, be serious.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, do I? I told you, the locos’d say so.’ Jojo eased her eyes open, taking in the leafy roof. ‘At home, your Mum and Dad and theirs and theirs all have to be born there.’

‘Still stupid,’ grumbled Freddy. ‘I could be more loco than them.’ Jojo closed her eyes again. ‘They go away and don’t come back.’

‘Good. Why don’t you?’

‘OK, I will, then,’ said Freddy jumping up. ‘Where’re the others?’

‘Oh, go and find them.’

‘Will then,’ repeated Freddy, creeping away on all fours. Soon a stone jabbed his knee and he ran off crouching through the trees.

Threats and Murmurs

A few insects, groggy on an early bloom of spring flowers, stumbled around Eyrie Rock on wings not yet quite up to a summer’s work. The twins scarcely noticed. But what they did see was a huge misty sun slipping down the sky, and they knew that somewhere else it would brighten a new day, while here it just meant darkness. The dying rays slanted across the lagoon picking out tips of tiny wavelets, flickering messages, Sammy guessed, from souls lost far below.

Waves of creamy sound ebbed and flowed in crevices, as the sea monster stroked some far-off beach. That was when Sammy first heard the whispering, like someone lazily sweeping a wet concrete floor far away behind bushes, as though it ‘Sswashed’ up shingle, dragging it back with a ‘swaaaah’ noise. At first it was dim but then louder and nearer: “WOSHhhh ‑ WAAaaah”.

‘Hear that?’ Sammy said. ‘A cry or something? Someone’s calling!’

‘Nah,’ muttered David. ‘Just the sea.’ Then he heard another sound. ‘Don’t look. We’re being watched!’

*

Left alone, Jojo relaxed and opened her eyes, gazing upwards through the filter of swaying branches. She too thought she heard a voice, plaintive, far away, calling someone’s name but she hunched her shoulders and closed everything out again. Alone with her thoughts in the wood with the dappled sunlight, the warmth and zither of insects lured her into sleep. So she never saw the tiny bird creep through the branches and peer at her with its head cocked on one side. Nor, surprisingly, did she hear the burst of piercing song it sang at her.

*

David’s voice sounded bored. ‘Oh, c’mon, do you think we don’t know you’re there?’

A lump of pinkish granite appeared to speak, ‘Rats,’ it said. ‘How?’

Sammy’s voice was flat. ‘You need to be cleverer than that. Don’t come near the edge.’

Freddy flumped down, cheeks red and blotchy from his climb up Eyrie Rock. He’d pushed through furze and bracken, dodged behind boulders and skirted vicious brambles. ‘What you doing? Can I have an ice-cream?’

Sammy was about to snap but relented and glanced at David. ‘Go to the store, I suppose? Before it closes. Try and see what’s going on?’

Yeah,’ Freddy urged. ‘Come on! Get ice-creams.’

‘Where’s Jo?’ said David.

‘Miles away,’ Freddy shouted, already clambering back down the hill.

Come on,’ said Sammy. ‘She’ll be OK. Get her one too. Shove it in the fridge.’

Mrs. Bell’s Lair

The store was also the post‑office and everything else of everyday importance on the island. It squatted at the far eastern end like a fat cat. David and Sammy slouched along the mile or so of narrow road built ages ago by prisoners‑of‑war, bleached concrete pitted and weedy, scarcely wide enough for the few clapped out old cars and vans which were no longer safe for the race-track roads back home.

Here the fastest thing was the occasional early swallow looping overhead chasing weak-winged insects. Granite hunks, piled up into thin walls, reeled and tottered off into the distance. Waxy bright yellow flowers winked from emerald blades of grass in the verges. The earth was warming, buds were plumping and deep in the debris of years gone by, autumn rains had brewed goodness, fermenting old leaves into fresh life. Mysterious scents seeped up to sweeten the rancid breath of the playground bully.

And so as the Earth mother was giving birth to the child of a new summer, clouds gathered overhead merging into a veil through which the sun grinned wickedly. Even so, Freddy ran from side to side like a puppy off its leash, every now and then stopping to squint through the straggly walls. He saw rows of long narrow fields, arranged, not like his favourite football team’s red and white stripes but green and chestnut brown.

Each field was bordered by wind-raked dusty hedges which towered over the stone walls. Sammy thought these walls were supposed to keep stock in (or out) but surely any half-decent cow could rub its rear end on one and send the whole lot tumbling down like rows of domino teeth in need of a dentist. Actually, livestock was tethered and she’d been told that the hedges were there to provide shelter from the wind for the early spring flowers which still helped to give some of the islanders a living. She preferred to think of a lazy cow leaning on them.

Mrs Bell was franking stamps on early season postcards. No automatic machines here, she did it all herself, clattering and banging as though each stamp was not the Queen’s head but someone she really hated. Glancing up as they came in, she resumed her banging. The store was empty save for a tall thin man with grey hair and a short beard. He was no ordinary viz and checked them over before returning to a shelf of old books – the sort you see in charity shops. Sammy never found the book she wanted in those shops but reckoned his bright eyes, narrow, tucked in either side of a beak‑like nose would do much better.

David got the four smallest, cheapest ices he could find deep in the deepfreeze, and dug almost as deeply in his pocket for the remains of money lurking there amongst sand and bits of screwed up paper. Ice cream was better than sticky coins.

He said, as casually and politely as he could, ‘Um, excuse please but, er, do you know what’s happening on the other side of the island?’

What! Where’s that m’dear?’ said Mrs Bell in a voice as loud and ringing as her name seemed to demand.

David only just stopped himself from saying The Refuse, stammering instead, ‘The… er, the other end, you know? By the old quay?’

Why, that’ll be ’e new ‘otel,’ said Mrs Bell giving back two small brown coins that seemed pointless to own. They wouldn’t buy a ticket to a toilet, let alone a Big Giant. He gazed at them blankly then flashed a startled glance at Sammy.

‘Aye,’ said Mrs Bell, ‘money don’t go so far now’days, do it?’

Um, yes, no,’ muttered David. ‘Thanks.’ He pushed the coins into a charity box on the counter, called Island Development. Fat lot of good (or harm) his contribution would do.

Retreating outside, the three Leighs sat on a low wall and morosely licked their ices. Northwards, the ‘Daymark’, built in the 17th century to guide sailors home, pointed at the sky. It could have been a toddler’s fat pencil, painted in red and white bands… like the poles stuck in The Refuse.

‘Brilliant!’ said David. ‘A sodding great hotel. Smack in the middle of it!’

All over it more like,’ moaned Sammy. Her eyes swung towards the store. From between the shelves the grey man watched. ‘Some Reservation!’

Freddy shrugged. ‘It won’t be one any more, will it?’

‘What?’ snapped David.

Reserved for someone else,’ said Freddy.

Zombies,’ spat David contemptuously. ‘The living dead!’

Rape’n pillage,’ added Sammy.

‘What’s that?’ asked Freddy.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t know,’ snapped Sammy, irritated by his relentless curiosity and good humour. ‘Why would you? People and things ruined. Never the same again.’

Trail of havoc,’ said David. ‘Trampled all over. Spoilt. Knackered.’

‘Could be a nice hotel,’ suggested Freddy.

David turned on him. ‘Don’t be an idiot! It’ll kill what’s there now. It’s “nice” already, and he waggled his fingers as if to imitate a genteel bewildered old lady.

Freddy licked his ice, pondering. ‘Will Jojo be knackered too?’

‘We all will.’

‘What about her ice-cream?’

Sammy flared again then looked at the sagging ice. ‘Won’t get it home in time, will we? Dum says you shouldn’t eat stuff you freeze twice.’

She won’t want it if she’s going to be pillaged,’ observed Freddy.

Oh, jeez, you have it.’

If not Outsiders, what?

On the way back there was a threatening silence. Even Freddy stopped charging about, and a chill wind sprang up. David decided that the sun, in or out, was straight and true while the wind snuck round corners and crept up on you. Good things were like the sun: straight‑forward and honest while troubles came with the wind blowing every-which-way, snatching at you, grabbing handfuls of dust to chuck in your face.

A week ago, before the serpent breath had gone bad, none of this had been possible. The secret reservation – their Refuse – had got used to being abandoned. It was settled and content to be a refuge for rabbits and butterflies.

Now someone had thieving eyes on it. But who?

Back at the cabin, there were no elderleighs but they found Jojo, who, surprisingly, had made a pot of tea. There was not much else, just a few limp biscuits – the sort that always gets left until last. They took the whole sorry feast out onto the patch of rough grass that pretended to be a lawn, and sat or squatted there, avoiding the snaking brambles. At least, thanks to the high hedges and sand dunes beyond, it was sheltered. Over one of the dunes, the Big Giant peered in at them.

Why do hot drinks cool you down more than cold ones?’ asked Jojo innocently.

‘What?’ growled David.

Jojo gazed round blankly. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said. ‘Why you all so miserable?’

Sammy sensed her old enemy Grief lurking nearby. She’d heard God Grief mentioned by her parents during some minor crisis. She didn’t really know who it was but she did know that if you gave it an inch, it took a mile and infected everyone. You had to kill it fast. ‘It’s an opposite,’ she said with phoney brightness. ‘Heats you up so you feel cool afterwards.’ She tried to illustrate the idea, ‘Opposites are good.’

Freddy screwed up his face but Jojo pursued the point, ‘Is that why they come from hot countries like India?’ she said, half remembering some old geography.

‘’Spect so,’ said Sammy. ‘Nature’s like that. Mad’s always on about it.’

‘About what?’ demanded Freddy.

‘Oh, about providing things.’

So man can wreck ’em,’ put in David. ‘Nature’s big mistake, I’ve always said so.’

‘Some men,’ said Sammy.

‘And women,’ said Freddy.

No, men!’ Sammy was certain of this. ‘It’s always men. It’ll be men behind that hotel. See if it isn’t.’

What hotel?’ shrieked Jojo. ‘What are you on about? Tell me!’ So they did and right afterwards she surprised them again by saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to do something.’

And then Sammy saw that this was the best way of crushing God Grief in the same way the post-lady had stamped on the letters. ‘Resistance fighters,’ she said.

‘Like in wars,’ said Freddy.

There was a film about them once. I saw it on TV,’ said Sammy.

Oh, there’s been loads,’ grunted David. ‘But we’ll have no-one on our side, will we? In those films the locals are always on their side and help. This lot’ll be against us.’

You don’t know that,’ said Sammy. ‘Mightn’t be.’

‘’Course they will,’ said David. ‘They’ll want the money’.

From those pillagers?’ said Freddy. ‘You said they robbed us.’

It’s the same thing.’ Sammy said patiently. ‘They’ll trash everything and give us money to keep us quiet. It’s a bribe.’

‘Us?’ said Jojo. ‘You mean them.’

‘Well, that’s it, isn’t it? We don’t know, do we? Are we outsiders or what?’

Neither,’ said David. ‘Something in between.’

What though?’ demanded Jojo.

David shrugged. ‘Not locos ’cos we weren’t born here.’

So we are outsiders,’ said Freddy.

Sammy stood up. ‘So? Come on, got to do something. It’s the only way. See what they really think.’

David snorted. ‘Huh. How?’

Well, we could, er, put up a notice,’ said Sammy desperately. ‘In the store?’

‘A WANTED poster!’ yelled Freddy.

Wanted!’ Jojo chimed in. ‘A thousand pounds for the mugger what’s stealing the island!’

‘Who,’ corrected Sammy, not really caring.

‘Dead or Alive!’ contributed Freddy.

No, just dead!’ said Jojo.

‘We can’t offer a reward or anything,’ said Sammy quietly. ‘We just need to know how people feel.’

‘It’s obvious how they feel,’ said David. ‘No‑one ever goes there so no‑one cares. End of story.’

‘They’ll want the money,’ said Jojo.

Make the island rich,’ chirped Freddy.

Then ruin it,’ said David. ‘So that when viz stop coming and it’s just like everywhere else, they’ll be worse off than ever. How stupid is that?’

They’re stupid,’ spat Jojo. ‘If they build a stupid hotel, I won’t ever come again, ever!’

‘Plenty will,’ said Sammy. ‘New viz.’

‘And still think it’s nice,’ grumbled David.

Anyway, got to try,’ Sammy insisted. ‘Call it research. What Maddy does. You can’t decide about something ’til you find out about it. He says it’s “Knowing what’s what” but it’s research really.’

‘What’ll we put on it?’ said David. ‘This here poster.’

Wanted! Ransom,’ pleaded Freddy.

‘Oh shut up, Fred,’ said Sammy. ‘It’s got to be…’ She searched for the right word.

‘Neutral?’ prompted David. ‘Like a referee.’

‘Sort of. Fair or it’s not worth it.’

‘Look,’ said David. ‘Your idea – you do it.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ said Sammy.

The elderleighs returned so they didn’t talk about it until the next morning. Sammy thought they’d understand but say it was none of their business.

It is though, isn’t it?’ Freddy had said.

Bearded in Bell’s Lair

Later that morning, approaching the post‑office with the poster rolled up in an elastic band, they saw the same grey man from the day before go inside.

‘That’s the guy I told you about,’ said Sammy.

‘Grimbeard!’ whispered Jojo.

‘What?’ demanded David irritably. ‘Who?’

His name is Grimbeard… Sort of grey but serious and wise. Old men with beards are, aren’t they – Gandalf, Dumbledore, you know?’

I can think of some who aren’t,’ muttered David thinking of newspaper photographs he’d seen, but said, ‘Sauron f’rinstance. Anyway, he looks weird. Who cares?’

Hoping the store was not busy they crept inside, and tried to look interested in a row of cereal packets. A man and woman viz were at the counter. Finish and leave before more arrive, why don’t you? Grimbeard, oddly, was at the same shelf as before. Can’t be much to look at there, Sammy thought but decided Jojo was right. He did look all right – kind of dignified and serious, and his hair was not short, as she had thought, but tied back. He wore a long coat and curious sandals.

At long last, the viz left, and Mrs Bell surveyed her new customers.

You ’gain. Two days a‑trot? What now? Not ice-creams again – surely.’ Mrs Bell was going to talk until more viz came. David nudged Sammy. Get on with it. Get it over with. Escape outside. Now, confronted by a real loco, he wasn’t so sure.

Sammy pushed the poster across the counter. ‘Please, can you, er, put this up… in your window?’ She thought she sounded sly.

So what’s all this?’ bellowed Mrs Bell, as though to the whole world. Jojo felt Grimbeard turn his attention towards them. The postmistress was reading the poster. It hadn’t occurred to David she would do that. Mrs Bell glanced up at them in surprise. ‘Why, that’s the new hotel. I told ’e so yes’day.’

Oh, yes… Yes, you did. Thanks,’ said Sammy, flustered. ‘But we’d like to know, er, a bit more, you know. Sort of project.’

‘School, is it?’

‘Er, well…’

No, not for school… not really,’ fumbled David before he could stop himself. Damn! That would have been easier and got them outside again quicker. ‘But we need to know a bit more. Kind of important, see?’ he ended lamely.

No, not really,’ grunted Mrs Bell. ‘Don’t expect no harm in it.’ She had served mainlanders too long to say, ‘Ain’t none of your business.’ So instead, she said, ‘I’ll put t’up d’reckly for ’e… No, no need for that m’dear,’ she added, sounding a bit kinder, as Sammy fished in her purse.

Relieved, Sammy said, ‘Oh, thanks.’ Cash was dwindling fast.

‘Yep, thanks a lot,’ beamed David, glad it was over. ‘Sorry to be a nuisance.’

‘All part the service,’ mused Mrs Bell almost to herself as she watched them retreat outside.

Yuk! Made a right googly of that,’ said David. ‘Should’ve guessed she’d read it and want to know why.’

Doesn’t matter, does it? We want people to read it. It’s going up, that’s the main thing. Now just got to wait and see.’

They had less time to wait than they thought, for coming out of the post‑office, and making straight for them was the strange grey man.

 

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