Tuesday, 13 December 2016

18 What came out of the bucket

She was in the main hall at school, just after assembly finished, waiting for everyone to leave. On her way out, she realised she’d dropped her charm bracelet somewhere. Her great-aunt had given it to her when she was small and used to give her a new charm to add to it each birthday. It was real gold and she wasn't supposed to wear it to school. She was sure she’d put it on that morning but, with the crowd of children leaving, there’d been no hope of spotting it on the floor.

Crouching down and peering through their legs, once or twice she caught a flash of something reflecting in the sunlight - but then lost sight of it again.

‘Have you lost something, Ellie?’ Steph crouched down behind her, following her gaze.

‘I think so, Steph. You go on though or we’ll both be in trouble for being late.’

‘Are you sure I can’t help you look?’

‘No, it’s okay. I just have to wait till the hall is empty.’

Detached from the children’s thunderous collective noise, the racket slowly became alien and overwhelming and she wondered to herself how she could stand it every day. When she was a part of it, she never even noticed it.

Finally, the hall was empty and Elisha studied the expanse of rather scuffed parquet flooring. It boasted a few souvenirs of the assembly - a green v-necked jumper, sleeves across itself, one of those multicolour biro pens - you could choose which colour to use and press that one down. The trouble with them was that the more legible colours ran out quickly, so you'd only have light blue and bright pink left, which didn't show up on anything. There was also a hymn book, open face down and some bits of ratty tissue from a pocket. But no sign of the bracelet. The glinting she’d seen came from the rather more prosaic source of a crumpled piece of tinfoil from someone’s sandwich. Had someone picked the bracelet up? She supposed they might hand it in to lost property. That’s what she would do if she found something like that.

She now thought she knew how it must have come off - when she was pulling her sweater over her head and then her arms out of the sleeves. She thought she remembered there being a slight clatter. It was always very hot when they all crowded into the hall, even on the coldest days. Very annoyed with herself, first for wearing the bracelet to begin with and second for being so careless as to lose it, she sighed and turned to the doors at the back to leave.

Suddenly, from behind her she heard a commotion and a girl’s voice crying ‘Help! Help!’ And Veronica Atkins ran out onto the stage from the wings. Intrigued, Elisha waited to see what was happening.

But it wasn't long before she wished she hadn't. First off, there was just a shadow ... but she didn't like the look of it at all. It seemed to be a very big shadow, compared to Veronica’s; and it was a rather weird shape. Nor was she reassured by Veronica’s face, which was contorted into a petrified mask-like grimace. And Elisha could see that she was shaking even from where she stood, in the main body of the hall. The girl seemed to be frozen to the spot, staring up at the thing whose shadow darkened the wooden boards near her.

Her heart beginning to beat very fast, Elisha ran to the side of the hall and stooped to hide behind a few stacks of black plastic chairs. She put her head out and saw the thing emerge onto the stage. It was huge, monstrous, a black shiny carapace, massive, deadly-looking pincers ... It stretched a claw out, knocking Veronica over and pinning her to the floor.

It was a giant stag beetle. That was what had been coming out of the bucket in her dream the other night.

Elisha gasped, stared, blinked a couple of times, then pinched her left upper arm hard with her right thumb and forefinger. Veronica wasn't exactly screaming, more whimpering and moaning, trapped and helpless.

This must be a dream, Elisha thought, at the same time wondering why she didn't act, instead of just hiding. But she was genuinely puzzled as to what to do. Should she rescue Veronica (and how) or should she give the beetle a round of applause? It was a real dilemma.

The creature that had seemed so cute when it was little was terrifying in these proportions. But, although it was holding Veronica, it didn't really seem to be hurting her. What did stag beetles eat? Maybe she could tempt it away with something from her snack box?

‘Elisha!’ Veronica had seen her. She ducked back behind the chairs guiltily. ‘Elisha, help me, for God’s sake.’ So she could get her name right when she wanted.

Now she supposed she had to do something. Putting her satchel on the floor, she bent down and rummaged through it, prising the top off the Tupperware lunchbox. Was it more likely to go for an apple or a bar of chocolate?

While doing this, she heard activity from the stage. The beetle had released Veronica, but was pushing her along with its head, its pincers near her shoulders. Veronica had her hands over her eyes but still managed to call out desperately, ‘Elisha!’

She sprang into action, a Curlywurly in one hand and a Granny Smith in the other, running towards the stage. Waving them in front of her, she tried to get the beetle’s attention. ‘Here, here,’ she cried, briefly dangling them over Veronica, trying not to look at it in case it scared her too much, then moving to the side of the beetle, watching its head follow her. It took a couple of attempts before she really got it hooked, turning away from its victim towards her. At that second, Luke appeared from nowhere and dragged Veronica off into the wings. Veronica yelped when she first felt him touch her but then relaxed when she realised he wasn't an enormous insect.

Elisha dropped the apple and Curlywurly on the stage, then thought again, bent down and took the wrapper off the chocolate for the beetle. All of a sudden someone was shaking her by the shoulder. Angrily, she turned her head.

‘You dozed off,’ Steph was saying in a whisper, ‘and Miss C. saw you.’

Elisha was back in the hall in the middle of assembly, cross-legged on the floor between her friends, one hand fingering the charms on her bracelet. ‘Huh?’ she thought and stared at Steph in confusion.

‘Don’t worry, she only smiled.’ Steph nudged her with her elbow.

Elisha looked round for Veronica Atkins to check she was all right. The dream had seemed so real. But she couldn't see much from down on the ground, despite craning her neck upwards.

‘Have you seen Veronica?’

‘Yes. Why?’ Steph was engaged in writing a memory jogger on the back of her hand in black biro. It said ‘watch TOTP’. She turned back to Elisha. ‘You missed it all. She had some weird kind of turn or something. Maybe she fell asleep too because she started screaming and moaning. They took her to the sick room.’

Elisha sighed with relief. ‘But she’s okay?’

‘As far as I know.’ Steph clipped the lid back on her biro and hooked it onto the v-neckline of her sweater. ‘I thought we didn't like her anyway?’

Assembly was finishing for real (or she thought it was real this time) - the teachers were making the kids stand up row by row from the back and file out. Luke hung back from his row to join them.

‘Wow. What was all that about with Veronica?’ He shook his head expressively. ‘It was like she went mental.’ His eyes searched Elisha’s face - she wasn't sure what for. ‘Don't you think, Elisha?’

She frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

‘It was almost as if she thought some giant insect was chasing her,’ Luke said.

Luckily, Steph had moved further away from them and hadn't heard him. Eyes widening, Elisha looked at Luke sharply and pulled him aside by tugging his shirtsleeve. ‘Are we having the same dreams again?’ she demanded, not sure why this made her annoyed with him.

‘I don't know,’ he shrugged. ‘Are we? You tell me.’

‘You know we are. But what about Veronica Atkins? Is she having the same ones too? And why?’

‘Hurry it up there.’ Mr Saunders was holding the door open and beckoning them through. The hall was almost deserted. Looking back at it, Elisha shuddered slightly, remembering the giant beetle.

‘I think it’s you,’ Luke confided, making Elisha raise her eyebrows. ‘It’s your dream,’ he continued. ‘But if you dream one of us into it, it becomes our dream too.’

He could be right. After a moment’s indignation that everyone else was invading her private subconscious, she began to think about the positives. She started to wish she could control her dreams more. Then perhaps she could dream that she met her favourite popstar and he fell in love with her ...

‘Is it the well giving you the power, d’you think?’ Luke meditated, as they pushed through the heavy green door into the classroom.

It was her turn to shrug. ‘Don't ask me.’

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Well, chapter 19

19 The sting


The next day they met on the wall again. This time Luke was crunching on a crisp red apple as she sat down beside him. It was good to see he'd got his appetite back.
          She'd copied the rules down inside the back page of one of her exercise books and left the original version back in her bedroom, carefully folded and slotted into a letter her aunt had once sent her on special perfumed stationery. Sniffing it closely, she’d still been able to detect the faint fragrance of roses.
          Strangely, when she'd copied the verse, her writing had taken on some of the qualities of the original writer's – it was more controlled, loopy and decorative than usual, almost as if she'd been possessed by someone else. It had felt sort of spooky and a chill had run down her spine as she’d been writing.
          'Your handwriting's neat,' Luke commented, nodding appreciatively. 'Mine's so bad I often can't read it myself.'
          'Yeah, it's weird,’ – she had to stop talking as some sirens drowned out her words – ‘it is neater than normal,' she conceded, feeling slightly uncomfortable as she remembered the sensation she'd had when writing it the night before. There was a tickly kind of prickling on the back of her neck.
          'Right. So we need your dad to get a better job.'
          'Without it backfiring somehow.' She thought this point could not be stressed enough. Things often seemed to go wrong if you weren't careful what you wished for or maybe how you wished for it.
         'Uh-huh. So you're not wishing ill upon anyone, in fact, you're wishing for plenty, in a way.' His brow furrowed as he ran his index finger down the list of dos and don'ts. 'That's not relevant. Neither is that.'
          Elisha felt comforted by his logical analysis. She bent down to pull up the unelasticated socks that had congregated in untidy crinkles round her ankles and scratched at an insect bite just under her knee, making the area red and inflamed. Her Mum always told her not to scratch them but she just couldn't help it. To stop herself, she sat on her hands and turned her attention back to Luke.
          'Wish forward. Never back. Mmm. Maybe it could be said to be wishing back because he did have a good job before ...' He took another bite of the apple. She couldn't help thinking that Luke tended to consider everything a bit more carefully than she did. She wondered if it was a skill he’d learnt while poorly.
          'Yes, but I don't want him to get the same job again. I want him to have a different one, where he doesn't have to work so hard.'
          'Well then, that's probably okay, I guess.'
          The bell went for the start of class and they both jumped like someone had poked them in the back. Luke just laughed but Elisha had immediately thought 'heed the bell' and started to worry about time being up and the hell demons bit.
          'Sit next to me for the story this afternoon,' Luke urged, as they got up and started heading back to the school building. Elisha nodded quickly and smiled, watching him chuck the apple core into a big yellow cylindrical bin, almost hitting a wasp that was buzzing round it.
          Suddenly from across the asphalt, Jasmine ran up to her, yelling – well, screeching really – 'Where have you been? I've been looking for you all over all break!' She sounded really angry and very upset.
          Elisha realised that they had sat in a rather out-of-the-way corner to puzzle over the rhyme. It had seemed natural enough because they hadn't wanted to be disturbed.
          'Why? What's wrong?' she asked, for immediately she could see that something was definitely wrong. Jasmine's face was streaked and wet with tears; her eyes were red; and she looked distressed to the point of anguish.
          It had to be something to do with Steph because she wasn't there and the two girls were nearly always together. 'What's happened?' Her voice came out as a kind of shriek as the panic infected her. 'Has something happened to Steph? Where is she? Hrmph!' she went as Jasmine barrelled into her, holding her in a tight, desperate embrace, sobbing and gasping for breath at the same time.
          Elisha felt guilty for not being with her friends when they needed her. She wasn't doing any good turns for anybody else, just worrying about her own problems. As usual. Even though her aunt had warned her not to be selfish.
          Jasmine started to stutter out a breathless explanation as Elisha patted her rhythmically on the back as she'd seen people do in movies. Luke looked at her over her friend's head, his expression bewildered and troubled, like he'd just been assigned some really unpronounceable word in a spelling test.
          'It was a wasp.' Jasmine took in a big breath. 'She started to scream and I told her not to hit out at it. I tried to get her to calm down but you know what she's like with wasps.'
          Elisha nodded. 'Yes, I know. So did it sting her?'
          'It stung her on the arm, just here,' Jasmine indicated a place on top of her forearm.
          Feeling a bit relieved that it was only a wasp sting, Elisha held Jasmine away from her with one arm and rummaged for a tissue in her satchel with the other. 'Here,' she handed it to her friend, who wiped her face roughly before blowing her nose noisily. Her beaded braids swung over her face.
          Luke looked impatiently at them. 'The bell's gone already, you know,' he prompted, evidently thinking this was a lot of fuss over a wasp sting.
          Elisha made a face at him and asked Jasmine: 'But she's okay now? Is she in the nurse's office?'
          Elisha had only been there once herself – it was a small clinical room that smelt a bit like a hospital, only mixed with pee, and boasted an iron bed with a mattress covered in plastic, a green first-aid box with a white cross on it mounted on the wall, a sink and a desk and chair where the nurse sat when she was in there. There was a small toilet next to it. It was the kind of place where you instantly felt ill, even if you'd been all right before. She'd been feeling dizzy and lay down on the bed but the plastic cover had made so much noise each time she moved and had smelt so funny and rubbery that she couldn't wait to get up again.
          'She's been taken to hospital. Mr Saunders took her in his car because they said the ambulance would take twenty minutes. Elisha, she's allergic to wasp stings. She nearly died. I couldn't do anything to help her. She couldn't breathe; she started to have convulsions or something. I was so scared!
          'Veronica ran into the office to get them to call 999 and Josie went to get the nurse but she couldn't find her. Just as well Ronnie was there ...' Jasmine stopped to gulp in air, 'I don't know what would have happened.'
          Even in the middle of her anxiety for her friend, Elisha felt annoyed that Veronica Atkins, of all people, should have come to the rescue. And a little jealous as well.
          'The bell went ages ago. What are you lot doing out here?' Miss Clements folded her arms and stood over them, looking stern. ‘As if it’s not bad enough falling asleep during assemblies ...’
          'Their friend went into anaphylactic shock,' Luke explained, a little contritely now that he realised it was more serious. Both girls turned their heads to him in astonishment at the word he’d used. 'She got stung by a wasp.' He'd spent so much time in hospital that he knew pretty much everything other kids came in with.
          Miss Clements frowned and nodded sympathetically. 'Oh, yes, Stephanie. Well, she's at the hospital by now. I'm sure she'll be all right.' She put an arm round each of the girls' shoulders. 'Come on now. Let's go inside and get to class. Mr Saunders will let us know what's happening as soon as he can.' They started walking together. Glancing back at Luke, the teacher said, 'You too, Luke. There's nothing we can do about it at the moment.'

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Well, chapter 17

17 Back to school


All of a sudden, it was that time again, finding uniforms didn't fit, smart shoes were scuffed and tight round her toes, white knee-socks had no elastic and that all her pencils had broken leads. Yellow HB pencils - they were never the same as when they were new out of the box, beautifully sharpened to an exquisite point.

Going back to school was one of those times Elisha dreaded. She felt scared about it, unsure - would it be the same? Would she and her friends still get on or would something have happened over the summer to change them? She'd have a new form teacher who maybe wouldn't be as nice as her old one. Nervously, she combed tangles out of her hair after her shower as she worried about things that could go wrong.

They hadn't managed to get away anywhere all summer. It didn't really bother her as much as she'd thought it would in the end. But her parents seemed different somehow - the way they looked at each other over her head. They were preoccupied with money matters, making calculations in notebooks, looking at creditcard statements, waiting for red bills. Her dad would spend ages each morning going through papers looking at the job sections, ringing ads in black biro before calling people up about them. He kept playing an old LP, singing along to some of the songs, especially one that said he had to ‘get back in the line’. She thought the song sounded sad, the one about champagne and Coca-Cola was more fun and her favourite was about being an apeman. But, strangely, it always seemed to cheer her dad up. Her mum would sometimes sing too. She said it wasn’t so bad when everyone was in the same boat. Elisha knew what she meant but surely it would have been safer if not so many people were in the boat.

Last night, her mum had scrawled out a list of things not to forget, on a piece of laminated yellow paper, from her pile of rough paper, the clear back-sides of junk-mail circulars.

It meant it was normally afternoon before they could go anywhere for a day out. Other days he’d had to go to the employment exchange in the next town - this seemed to take all morning too - and when he got back he’d be in a bad mood, snapping at everyone.
Last night, her mum had scrawled out a list of things not to forget, on a piece of laminated yellow paper, from her pile of rough paper, the clear back-sides of junk-mail circulars.

It felt so weird being in school clothes again. She was in the green checked summer uniform school dress, with a dark green v-neck sweater over it. They were having what her mum called an 'Indian summer', unseasonably warm and humid, sun-filled days that only turned cold in the evenings long after she was home from school.
But even odder was having her mum come to school with her, asking Elisha if she was dressed okay, worrying about make-up and perfume, and what to say to the pupils. Although pleased she'd got the job, Elisha was in two minds over whether it would work out. It was introducing someone from her home realm into the school world, which she thought of as completely separate, where she could really be a different person. She worried about how other kids would react to her mum being there. But she had to concede that her mum looked great, her ash-blonde hair twisted up into a chignon, in a long, flowing dark-green maxi skirt and cork-soled green platform sandals. She thought she must be the best-looking mum in the world, let alone the best-looking dinner lady.

Her dad hadn't managed to get a proper job as yet. In the end he’d had to take a rather menial position that he kept saying was just temporary. He was working in a factory on the other side of town, mainly doing night shifts so that she would sometimes hear him come in, about 6.30 in the morning, his key rattling briefly in the front-door Chubb lock before connecting, being very quiet, closing the door gently behind him.

Normally he'd be in the kitchen when she got down for breakfast, would be starting off coffee and stuff, but looking tired and a bit defeated despite his attempts at cheeriness. She noticed a few white hairs at his temples and deeper lines around his eyes. As he poured her a glass of juice one morning, his hand shook very slightly. It was one of those unusually shaped smoky brown petrol station glasses. They were her favourites so that she reached and took it from him in case he dropped it.

Then he would go to bed for a while, mid-morning to late afternoon, before getting up and having something to eat prior to his next shift.
Her mother too seemed weary - she frowned more frequently than before and her voice had a slight edge to it, like she was teetering on the brink of a crevasse. Her kind brown eyes also seemed clouded and troubled more often.

Elisha knew she had to try to do something to help.

The thought of the school bell was like a death knell to the holiday. Ominous yet at the same time triumphant. It made Elisha's heart beat fast under her dress and sweater.

When it came down to it, it was exciting to see her friends again though. They rushed towards her in the playground before the bell, both chattering at once, bursting with holiday news.

Jasmine's hair was in beautiful cornrows, with different primary-coloured beads strung on the ends. Apparently, it was normally very expensive but her mum was friends with a hairdresser who did it for free. But they were all a bit worried that the school might object to the colours.

And Luke. He'd completely changed. For a long time he'd seemed to Elisha like one of those balloons that had somehow survived a birthday party and the general cruel popping at the end of the afternoon. Ever since he'd been in a slow, sad decline, doomed to shrink a little every day, gradually diminishing towards nothingness. Losing air, relinquishing life.

Now suddenly it was as if someone was blowing him up again - pumping air back into him, plumping out his flesh, making him new once more. The boy he'd been before.

Elisha didn't think she could be the only one who'd noticed his rejuvenation. His hair had grown longer and thicker, his arms were less skinny, face less pinched - he'd kind of filled out, like those women who used Oil of Ulay on TV. And he smiled more often and more widely than for the last few months. Whereas before she hadn't liked to look at him because he made her miserable, now she actually found his face, his presence cheered her up.

Also she wanted to ask his advice about what to do. He already knew about (and believed in) the well and had experienced its magic. In fact, it was as if the well had selected him and drawn him in without Elisha saying anything. So perhaps it was all right to consult him. If she just followed the rules on the paper, surely things would work out fine?

She cornered him at the morning break, finding him on a low wall by the playground, eating a Milky Way that had partly melted from being left in his bag in the sun by the class window all morning. The chocolate was leaving dark-brown gloops on his fingers that he had to lick up. He was sucking some off his right thumb when Elisha joined him.

It was hard to talk about her family situation to an outsider. But with Luke it seemed a bit easier - he listened without interrupting much until she'd finished, then crumpled the chocolate wrapper into a ball while pursing his lips and obviously thinking hard.

'So, your dad needs a better job, swiftish?'

Was this all it really boiled down to? She nodded.

'And you want to know if the rules allow you to wish for it?'

'Yes, without something bad happening by mistake.'

'Have you got them with you?'

'Er, no. I didn't want to lose them ... ' She really wasn't as good at planning things as she'd thought. Her attempts to remember the verse were not impressive and Luke's face registered this fact with a progressively more pained and exasperated expression.

'Look, bring it in tomorrow and we can go over it,' he finally said, cutting her off as she mumbled, 'One good turn forgets another.'
'Sorry. There was so much to remember this morning. And I couldn't tell my mum to write it on the list.'

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Well, chapter 16

16 The stag beetle


Elisha skipped from one pink paving stone to the next until she got a stitch in her left side. Slowing down, she continued to avoid the cracks, paused to watch a ladybird crawl up a blade of grass over someone's wall.

The smells in the avenue changed with the seasons. In summer, some lovely jasmine or honeysuckle fragrance would make her want to inhale deeply but it competed with the putrid stink of drying dog shit on concrete, which made her pinch her nostrils together with one hand.

The newsagents was on the corner of Sparrow Road, in a tiny parade of odd shops - an old-fashioned hair salon with yellowy windows where old ladies probably requested blue rinses and perms, a wool shop displaying inelegantly arranged, outmoded fashions, a sub-post office with half-empty shelves of over-priced stationery and cheap, plastic toys. With very little effort, you could imagine them in the 40s or 50s - at least her aunt used to say that some of the clothes in the wool shop looked like they'd been there since the war.

She had enough money to get an ice cream as well and had gone over in her head what there was to choose from but she couldn't remember if the shop stocked Walls or Lyons Maid. She was veering towards a rum and raisin choc ice - something like that. Having something with rum in it was naughtier and so more of a treat. It automatically tasted nicer than just any old fruit or chocolate flavour.

Pausing outside the shop, Toby's - they all had names like that, normally men's names. The post office was Bob's, the hair salon Marc's Hair Fashions - she saw Veronica and Josie with a boy she didn't recognise. The girls were sitting on charcoal-grey pavement bollards and the boy standing between them with a long twig. All concentrated on the ground, where the boy was prodding at something with the stick.

Not really wanting to, but too curious not to, Elisha sidled over to them, her left hand in her shorts pocket, rolling the coins around. When she got closer, she saw to her disgust that they were tormenting a big stag beetle that was stranded on its back, waving its six legs in the air in distress.

'Leave it alone!' she called before she had time to think.

The boy glanced up at her and sneered scornfully, 'Who says?'

'We know her,' piped up Josie, though her tone was also derisory.

'It's Elsie Goodman from school,' Veronica added, deliberately getting the name wrong and making Josie snigger.

'Elsie! She sounds like someone's great grandma,' exclaimed the horrible boy, delightedly.

Enraged and embarrassed, Elisha strode into their midst, reached down and picked the stag beetle up, much more easily than she could have hoped, thumb and forefinger on either side of its body, like her dad had shown her many times.

'Oy!' the boy objected, too late, his thin lips stretching and parting to reveal a mouthful of uneven teeth.

The beetle's three captors were rather astonished that someone, a girl at that, would dare to just pick it up like that, heedless of pincers, unsqueamish about creepy-crawlies.

Elisha darted away from them, careful with the beetle, whose legs were still waving in insect panic. She released it into someone's front flowerbed, watching it scuttle between antirrhinums in myriad colours, under pink hydrangea bushes into deep cover.

'Stag beetles are getting rare. We should try to protect them.'

'You're so boring,' retorted Josie, following Veronica's petulant dismissive turn on her heel, as they walked away.

'Hey, wait for me,' called the boy, picking his Chopper up from where it had lain sprawled in an abandoned way, taking up the whole width of pavement. He scurried after the girls, wheeling the bike alongside.

Although she felt proud to have saved the beetle, the encounter with the trio had ruined her day somehow. She wished she were out with her friends somewhere and didn't have to go home to the tenseness in the house. At the moment it felt a bit like waiting to go in at the dentist.

She didn't even buy an ice cream in the end but walked home a different way, feeling a bit depressed. On this journey, she passed items of clothing, some on the pavement, others strewn across the grass verge - socks, boxer shorts, shirt - as if someone had performed an impromptu strip while walking back from the station the night before. Normally, she would have been intrigued by this, might have constructed a whole story around it, but now she barely gave the clothes a second glance, let alone much thought. She was wishing she'd had a clever comeback for Josie and Veronica - she could have called Veronica 'Verucca', as she and her friends often did to each other behind her back. Luke used to call Josephine 'Poison Fiend'. At least thinking about this took her mind off her dad losing his job and all the other stuff.

When she neared home, she hesitated at the drive. Her dad was crouched down looking at the wounded car door, frowning deeply. 'Uh oh,' she thought and wondered if she could sneak by on the other side of the car without him seeing her. Probably not but worth a try.

Tucking the magazine under her arm, she bent down and edged towards the front door, hidden by the car. But parents seemed to have extra senses whenever you didn't want them to.

'Elisha,' her dad called.

Mid-creep, she released her held breath, straightened up slowly and rather sheepishly. 'Yes.' She raised her eyebrows, acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be crawling along on the other side of the car from him.
The corners of his mouth twitched like he was restraining a smile but then he switched his face to a stern expression. 'Have you seen what you've done to my car, young lady?'

There was the 'young lady' thing again - still, at least it wasn't ‘little madam’. She was solemn and contrite. 'I'm sorry, Daddy. It was an accident. The bike fell on it. I'll really be more careful in the future. It's just that sometimes I can't park it. I think it's safe and then it topples, all of a sudden. I am sorry.’ He let her babble run out. The magazine cover had got stuck to her arm. She peeled it away, frowning at the colourful imprint it left behind, and waited for him to speak.

'All right. It's okay, darling. I know you didn't mean it. Anyway, it was already dented there.'

She ran round the car to hug him, looking past the hairs on his arm at the car door. Now she came to think of it, it was unlikely that her little bike could have caused such a lot of damage.


That night she dreamt of the well - she was coming home from somewhere and there it stood, right where her house had been - it was huge. Awestruck, she stared up at it. The red bucket was in the drive, bigger than her dad’s car, rocking slightly back and forth like there was something inside it trying to get out. She began to get a little apprehensive. Whatever was inside was big and heavy enough to make the massive bucket rock. Maybe it would tip it over. Something appeared over the rim - it looked like a big black claw. She woke up, shivering with fright.
 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Well, chapter 15

15 The wisdom of wishing


It was the day after her dad’s company had folded and it had started off well, sunshine making all the colours outside bright and distinct. It was the kind of light that made you want to photograph everything because it all looked so good, so exhilarating and enchanting. But, even before Elisha had finished breakfast, the weather had changed. When she opened the back door to throw some crumbs out to the birds, the fresh coldness of the air took her breath away. She ran out to the lawn to dispose of the cake and breadcrumbs as fast as possible before dashing back inside and warming her fingertips on the top of the lounge radiator, which they had on to dry some clothes.

The sky began to darken, like it was a winter afternoon, the sun disappeared, the wind gathered strength to send the grey-white clouds racing along. A cruel sleeting rain lashed the house. Her dad always used to say, in a doom-laden voice, 'It's the end of the world' on days like this, when the elements just seemed to completely lose their temper and gang up on everyone.

Elisha thought it would be a good day to clean up her room, like her mum was always begging her to do; and get together stuff she could put in the orange charity sack that came through the door yesterday morning. It would be collected in a couple of days' time.

Trouble was, she found it hard to decide to throw something out. Clothes that were too small - yes, she could do that, and shoes - but she loved all her toys too much. And she would spend ages trying things on as well so that an hour passed with only a couple of tops put aside as definite candidates for the charity bag. To her delight, she caught sight of a skirt she hadn't been able to find for ages - a purple velvet maxi that had been her favourite thing to wear last winter. It had come off its hanger and was languishing in a forlorn heap back at the bottom of the wardrobe behind the well.

She reached for it a couple of times without getting hold of it before finally clutching it with her fist and drawing it out, one side-waist-loop still attached to the groove on the hanger, lines of grey dust wherever a fold had been on the wardrobe base. She sneezed. With it came an old green M&S bag. Her mum kept old plastic bags to use in the bins so Elisha laid the skirt down on the bed while she began to fold the bag up to go in the big bottom kitchen drawer that already overflowed with surplus bags. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen it actually able to shut. Even if closed, it seemed to dribble plastic bags like a big drooling mouth.

Holding the bag upside down, gripping it to her chest with her chin, she smoothed it down flat with her hands. As she did this, a slightly crumpled piece of paper drifted down to the dusky rose carpet. Folding the bag up quite small, she weighed it down with her money box on the windowsill. A brief look outside at the blue-grey pewter sky, the windblown trees and an old man fighting against the gale confirmed that staying indoors had been the right decision. Rain slashed its tracks across the windowpane and she could feel an icy draught even through the secondary glazing, more like midwinter than the end of summer.

She crossed back to the wardrobe, bent down and retrieved the scrap of paper, intending to chuck it straight in the bin. When she picked it up, however, an edge of it sliced deep into her index finger.

'Ouch!' she said aloud. Paper cuts were such a nuisance, she thought, sucking the finger and beginning to crush the paper into a ball with more venom than necessary. Suddenly, her hand cramped so she couldn't grip it - pins and needles shot up her arm, like when she lay on it too long at night. Then a strange tingling began all over her body. She found herself unrolling the ball of paper. It wasn't like she made a conscious decision to do it. Her fingers seemed to act on their own.

At first, seeing the scribbled lines on the creased, slightly torn paper remnant, she assumed it was a shopping list that had got left behind in the bag. But, looking closer, she realised it was a kind of verse. And it had a title, written in capitals and underlined rather shakily: THE WISDOM OF WISHING. Elisha drew a deep breath and sat down on the end of the bed, creasing up the edge of the dust-lined, purple skirt that she'd now forgotten all about.

It came back to her now. Aunt Jessie had given her the well in the M&S bag. This had been meant to come with it.

THE WISDOM OF WISHING
Wish no ill upon anotherWish for plentyNot for plague.
Guard the secretNever tellLest the tellingBreak the spell.
Wish no evilFrom the well.One good turn begets another.

Hear the warning,Heed the bell.Demons dark willSpring from hell.
Wish forward,Never back.Or things will turn black.
Before the wish is spentThere is time to repent.
Look into the bucketAnd find the keyTo turn things backHow they used to be.
Even when you do not sleepWhat you sowYou’ll surely reap.
Ignore the rulesAnd here’s the deal –A dream that’s sharedCan become real.

'Almost like a set of instructions,' she realised. 'Why didn't I see these before?'

The writing was oddly familiar - something similar to hers in it, like her best writing looked a bit like her mum's; her mum's looked a little like her gran's and aunt's - this looked kind of like her aunt's, only even more old-fashioned. It was written in violet ink, quite faded, on thin, thin, cream paper, like for airmail letters, with a few smudges and stains on it.

She thought she could see something else and held the paper up to the light of the window - some kind of watermark - a design of, she couldn't quite make it out, with all the creases and the writing - it looked like a bucket.

She read the verse through again, puzzling over its meanings, not much liking the sound of the dark demons from hell bit.

Could she tell Luke about this? He already knew about the well so what harm could it do? Why did everyone else have to be on holiday right when she needed them? Still, he'd be back in a few days - it would give her more time to think before deciding what to do.

Lying in bed that night, unable to sleep, trying to imagine sheep to count them. Why did people tell you to count sheep? They were meant to jump over a fence, she thought, but did sheep ever jump fences in real life?

It seemed her mind wouldn't stop working. Worrying about wishes, unwishing, selfishness, praying for guidance.

When she got to the 250th sheep (they were being rounded up in a pen by a sheepdog that looked like Bandit from Little House on the Prairie), she decided she might as well give up. Sitting up and settling her pillows behind her head, she drank a few gulps of slightly minty-tasting water from the toothbrush mug that she'd brought from the bathroom. It had stencils of dark-blue and turquoise fish on it. She'd left the lid with the four circular holes for toothbrush stems on the windowsill. Although thirsty, she hadn't wanted to go downstairs for water - she always felt like someone might come up behind her. Or she imagined that, while she was down there, some intruder would get in and be hiding in her room when she got back to it. Even after a brief trip to the bathroom, she always had to check in the wardrobe and under the bed.

From her bedside-table drawer she pulled out ‘The wisdom of wishing’ and considered it thoughtfully. Some of it seemed to contradict itself. She wondered if 'never tell' meant she'd been wrong to tell Jas and Steph ... maybe that was why it hadn't worked while they were there. But she'd told Luke too - did that mean her wish for him wouldn't come true?

She went through the poem or whatever it was, ticking and crossing things in her head. Well, she hadn't broken the first rule - she hadn't wished for anything bad to happen to anyone, though she'd been tempted to wish stuff about Veronica. And what about the wish about her father’s work? That had come true, only in an unfortunate way. Had that been wishing ill upon another? She hadn't meant it to be.
The 'wish for plenty, not for plague' she didn't really understand. Plague was a kind of disease they had in the Bible. Well, she'd wished away Luke's cancer so that was good.

The next rule she'd definitely broken though. There was no getting round it. But she'd had wishes come true afterwards so maybe telling people only cancelled out one or two. And then ...

One good turn ... she began to feel incredibly sleepy the more she tried to focus her mind, to decipher the poem's message. Her eyelids felt heavier and heavier. When she blinked she forgot to open them again for a while. On about the twentieth blink, she didn't open them at all. She was asleep.

The next day, waking up quite late to the sound of a Hoover bumping against her bedroom door, she stretched and yawned, a little annoyed to be roused so rudely. Turning onto her front, she pulled both pillows over her head and clamped them down with her arms, breathing in cotton-polyester sheet, only recently put on so that it still had that nice, clean, washing-powder smell.

It was no good. The pillows didn't block out the insistent droning of the Hoover, the draggy, sweepy sound of its back-and-forth movements, the banging of the edge of the brush on skirting boards and doors.

'Da-ad!' she protested.

Either he couldn't hear her above the Hoover or, more likely, he'd decided it was time for her to get up and was deliberately making a racket outside her room. An early riser himself, he couldn't see the attraction of a lie-in, the sheer luxurious feeling of seeing what time it was, not having to get up, being able to turn over and go back to sleep.

So she ended up being grumpy at breakfast, not that anybody really seemed to notice much. Her father was still vacuuming - she found it scary to look at him because he appeared so absorbed and intent on his task. It was like he was waging his own war on dust and dirt. Rarely did she see him so focused and aggressive.

She soon gave up sulking. There didn't seem much point if no one actually noticed she was doing it. When her mum said she could go and get the TVTimes, she jumped at the chance to escape the stuffy, tense atmosphere of the house, where recriminations hung unvoiced in the air and ideas flared but were cold-watered out. Most of them in her head. All without a word being said.