Well, you may by now be asking yourself which fact you are supposed to find more surprising: that a zebra could speak or that it spoke Spanish? But then, as Sally always said to me: why would you automatically just assume that a zebra would speak English?
But there you are and there it happened. The zebra looked David straight in the eye and spoke in a soft, lilting Spanish accent.
Now, some of you may have studied a little Spanish before or picked up a few words on holiday. If that is indeed the case, then you will know more than I did the first time I heard those words. You will know that what the zebra actually said to the boy was:
“Hello. My name is Rodriguez. Do you speak Spanish?”
David smiled at the beast and shrugged his shoulders. He tapped his right ear with two fingers [deaf] but in response the zebra just took another step back and blinked in puzzlement.
After another second of staring at each other, Rodriguez tried again. This time in a hesitant, strongly accented English: “You…er… espeak inglis?”
David shook his head again, a resigned look in his eyes. This wasn’t the first time that this sort of thing had happened.
Things you should know about David’s Language:
1. David communicated through BSL; that is to say: British Sign Language. He communicated through gestures made with his hands and expressions on his face.
Despite the fact that both of his parents and Sally were Hearing, like most Deaf children, BSL was his natural way to communicate.
2. His mum and dad had both been to sign language classes so that they could talk with him. They knew, however, that they would never be as good as the kids who had been learning from a very young age. In fact, when they visited his school and watched the blur of hands as the children signed to each other, they often struggled to keep up.
3. Sally had also gone to classes with her parents. At first, she had been as enthusiastic as any of them about learning David’s language (in fact, at one point she had appeared to have almost as natural a talent for it as her brother) but one day, something had changed and she had refused to sign anymore.
The Day it All Changed:
He remembered it well: coming home, racing to see his sister, his hands shaping the air in front of him with a story from his day at school. But something in her face was different. She turned away, refused to look at the pain in her brother’s eyes.
From that moment on Sally had refused to participate in any communication which had involved signing. David still did not understand why.
And This had Caused:
1. A lot of arguments! Mainly between Sally and their parents but she stuck firmly to her guns and for reasons known only to herself refused to make any effort to understand her younger brother when he used BSL.
2. Lip reading! When Sally spoke to him, she now rarely used anything but her mouth and for that reason he had had to learn to lip read in a rudimentary way. He tried to associate the movements of lips with the words that he understood in his head but would never be able to pronounce properly. It was difficult.
In this instance neither signing nor trying to lip read would have served any purpose as David didn’t speak a word of Spanish. And for once in his life, he was at a loss as to what to do.
So the boy looked helplessly at the creature which huffed in frustration in front of him. He was still amazed that such a fantastic creature was actually there.
Rodriguez was about a foot taller than boy standing before him in the snow. His head, long and broad across the nose, sat on a wide, muscular neck. His eyes, dark and shining with a fierce intelligence, peeped out from under a long, black mane which flopped rakishly down over the creature’s forehead. Large, rounded ears twitched in the icy chill of this winter’s night. David wondered if he wasn’t the most handsome animal which he had ever seen.
But for all his beauty (in David’s eyes, anyway) he was actually in quite a sorry state of affairs. Red scars cut across the black and white hair on his back, and his ribs jutted painfully from his skinny flanks. Chains connected the two fore legs and the two back legs and they must have made it very difficult for the zebra to walk.
They stood there, their first attempt at communication having failed completely and looked at each other, both unsure as to what to do next.
Friday, 28 August 2009
Well, you may by now be asking yourself which fact you are supposed to find more surprising: that a zebra could speak or that it spoke Spanish? But then, as Sally always said to me: why would you automatically just assume that a zebra would speak English?
Thursday, 27 August 2009
Whatever it was, it now raised itself to its full height and shook roughly from side to side. The snow clinging to its sides fell free revealing the black and white stripes beneath.
It was the zebra! He knew he had seen a zebra! He knew that it hadn’t been his imagination but in all of the excitement of the last few minutes he had quite forgotten the creature he had seen from his bedroom window less than fifteen minutes before!
Now, you, like me I suppose, would imagine that an eight-year-old boy coming face-to-face with an angry wild animal in the middle of the night, would have felt nothing but the most paralysing fear. However, the David of our story, as you will soon come to realise, was a most surprising boy in so many ways.
No, it wasn’t terror which spread across his face at the sight of this creature, it was sheer delight at actually meeting (touching!) an animal which he had only ever seen in books or on the TV.
A smile spread across the boy’s face which was so wide and full of joy that a look of confusion appeared on the face of the angry horse-like creature. It hadn’t been expecting that at all!
It took a footstep (hoofstep?) back from the puzzling little creature that sat on the ground in front of it but
in the process managed to catch its hoofs on chains which, as David now saw for the first time, were strung between its thick legs.
The creature tripped on the chains and in a sudden explosion of snow and hoofs it skidded on the sheer ice beneath the snow. First this way, then that, the black and white striped legs seemed almost to dance in their desperate effort to gain purchase on the slippery ground.
David stood there and watched stunned; the grin frozen on his face but the joy behind it gone. For a second, just a split second, he had considered laughing. However, this disappeared at the look of sheer panic that had appeared in the creature’s eyes and the sight of red welts that David now saw beneath the manacles of the chains and criss-crossing the creature’s back .Without another second’s thought, he jumped up and rushed towards the struggling animal’s side and pushed with all his strength.
Now as you can imagine this zebra, being such a large animal was extremely heavy, but just that
extra bit of support from the boy’s hands (small as they were) pushing against the zebra’s side gave the creature the momentum that it needed to find firm ground again.
David, though, was not so lucky and as the zebra found its feet, he slipped face first towards the snow.
Before he hit the ground, however, the creature moved forward quickly and grabbed the back of his dressing gown with its strong teeth, pulling David back up into a standing position.
And there they stood, chests heaving and breath puffing out into the cold air: a small, thin boy with brown hair and a dressing gown and a shackled zebra, in the middle of the night while the snow continued to fall and cover all that it touched.
And in that strange never-to-be-repeated situation, something happened. A moment of magic.
Not the type of magic that we associate with wizards and witches and magician’s top hats, but the kind which comes along with one of those brief, incredible all-important moments which just occasionally pop up out of nowhere.
They might arrive with a phone call, an unexpected encounter or a missed train. They might be waiting at the end of our garden. Sometimes they go unnoticed or seem unimportant; other times they are dramatic or deadly and we will remember them for the rest of our lives.
But, however these moments appear, one thing is certain: nothing will ever be the same again. They set our lives on a course which we have never expected and in a second, alter the shape of everything.
Our lives are built upon a stream of these moments, one leading on to the next and the next. Point to point to point until our life, drawing the line between them, gradually takes shape like a vast dot-to-dot puzzle. Then one day we look back and this picture suddenly becomes clear. It is the shape of who we are.
This was one of those moments. It did not go unnoticed and both present recognised it for what it was: a point in the grand circle of things which would change everything to come.
They felt it. It bounced like beams of light from the falling flakes and surrounded them both in its knowledge. They did not know how or why; they just knew that it was and that it had started at this moment.
They stood there, face-to-face, each looking the other in the eyes and waiting for the first to communicate.
Unexpectedly, it was the zebra who spoke first:
“Hola. Me llamo Rodriguez. Hablas espanol?”
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
The tight mesh of net pulls her back from the window. The round O of her brother’s mouth as he slips from her grasp and tumbles backwards. “David!” she knows that he cannot hear but screams anyway.
“GET…” Her leg kicks out, connects with a soft, fleshy belly and causes a satisfying grunt.
“OFF…” She pushes and pulls and thrashes against the strangers (creatures?) who have invaded her home.
“MEEE!“ A brief glimpse of a pair of evil, squinting, red eyes and thin, bloodless lips drawn back over rodent teeth in a nasty smile and … “ooooooh!”… What is that terrible smell?
The net is suddenly pulled away. Strong fingers bite into the flesh of her upper arms. Some kind of sack is pulled over her head. A sack that has possibly the worst smell that she has ever smelt in her life. A smell like the fishy reek of potatoes that have gone mushy and bad milk and the stink that wafts over when the boy sitting at the desk next to you has thrown up. She gags. Everything spins. The world becomes dark for a while.
Bits and pieces, flashes of sound and sensation, come to her through the darkness:
Pulling and tugging as her arms and legs are tied firmly behind her and she feels herself being picked up.
The slamming of doors. The clomping of heavy steps. The tinkle of broken glass.
Movement. A sudden thump, Sally realises that she is outside the house, on the ground laying in snow and the sack has fallen from her head. She gulps the fresh air greedily and blinks confused at a garden full of snow and lights.
Fire flickers in the sky. She looks up and up and up. It seems to go on forever. A great big ship at the end of the garden! Flames outline the masts and sails. It is so big. Really much bigger than a ship should possibly be. It towers above the white banks of the icy pond, a deep, terrible, black colour. A black which sucks that light from the world around it. It is a terrible thing this ship, she knows that immediately. It is a thing to cause icy shards of fear as cold as the ice upon which it stands. Then the sack is pulled tightly over her face once more and the rank odour blots out everything except for a deep dread at the knowledge that she is being taken to that ship.
More jolting, rough movement. Feet running on wooden boards. A loud chorus of whoops. Chattering and gibbering noises.
Thump! She has been dumped on the floor again. This time there is no soft snow to land on, just hard wood. Whispers creep through the foggy haze of putrid stench: Squideye…Ratboy…huntress
Then in the last few seconds of semi-consciousness before she passes out completely, she hears one last snatch of conversation:
Skinny thing, ain’t it? Not much fur? Can’t see her skin making as much money as the others. Oh well.
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
1. she kicked the door shut with a huge push from her feet
2. she landed slap bang on top of her brother
For the first second as she began realise that this wasn’t, in fact, a dream, Sally lay staring at the door and watched as whoever was outside twisted frantically at the door handle.
Something you should know about the bedroom door at 22 Dunstable Lane: Old, damp houses such as these have grown, shrunk, moved and generally changed over the years, just as the bones in the human body bend and shift and creak as we get older. So the once true wooden door frames, windows and floorboards of the house by the pond had all warped with age and sadness. Sally’s door jammed. Not just a little, but jammed as if it were locked and only a short, sharp kick to exactly the right spot would open it.
Coming to her senses, Sally became aware of a thumping wheezing noise from behind her and suddenly remembered David. With escape the one thought in her mind, she twisted around, scrambled to stand up, grabbed hold of her brother’s pyjama top and dragged him along with her as she did so.
[whatwhatwhat?] the boy signed frantically at his sister but she had no time to reply as she pulled him desperately over to the window and with her free hand pushed the old sash frame up.
Her heart thumping and trying to ignore the increasingly loud shouts and bangs of frustration outside the bedroom door, Sally grabbed her by now struggling brother and pushed him up so that he was sitting on the window sill facing her.
It was only a matter of seconds before the door-bangers found the right spot, she knew, so with no time for any explanation, she started to push him backwards out of the window. David, as anybody would do in his situation, grabbed at his sister’s arms and tried to resist. What was she doing?
The thought had barely had time to form before, over his sister’s shoulder, he saw, in what seemed like slow motion, the door burst open and two figures run into the room dragging a net between them. No taller than Sally, one of them appeared to be an orange monkey with an eye patch and the other…was that really a giant, pink rat wearing a bandana?
Such was the shock at seeing these very strange creatures that David completely forgot to hold on to his sister. As his fingers let go, he saw, in horror, Sally’s screaming face as the net covered it and she was pulled backwards away from him while at the same time shrinking and spinning upside down.
Or rather, he suddenly realised in panic, it was him who was spinning! He had fallen backwards through the window and was now sliding down the snow-covered porch roof outside!
The dark night sky raced overhead and wet flakes of snow slapped into his eyes and more snow went down the back of his pyjamas as he slid back, gathering speed. Then all of a sudden he was no longer on the roof but in mid-air and falling!
Whoosh! His stomach turned a summersault. His arms and legs flailed desperately for something to hold onto. There was nothing. David shot towards the ground, his eyes clenched tightly shut in terrified anticipation as the hard ground below got nearer. Any second now -
Clump! He fell right on top of a mound of snow which cushioned most of the fall. For a second he couldn’t believe it, he was fine. Completely unhurt. Then he remembered – Sally!
But before that thought could go anywhere else, the ground beneath him began to move. There was something beneath the snow! Something which wasn’t very happy at having been landed on!
David found himself slipping as the snow fell to either side of the mound and the thing beneath the snow stood up.
The thing shook the rest of the snow from its body and turned a very large head round on a very thick neck and glared down at the boy sitting in the snow in front of it. David’s mouth fell open as he came face to face with two furious eyes, two wide flaring nostrils and some of the angriest looking teeth that he had ever seen.
Monday, 24 August 2009
Something you should know about David #1: He read faces just like most of us read books. He had never been able to hear, nor indeed understand what hearing actually means to most of us (try explaining things like music to somebody who has never and will never hear it and you will understand what I mean). Instead, David was used to picking up on the slightest flicker of an eyebrow or twitch of the nose to help him make sense of the world around.
Now David recognised fear and it was an emotion which he was not used to seeing in his sister’s eyes. Irritation - certainly, anger – sometimes and, yes, let’s face it, occasionally just sheer malice when she was trying to get her brother into trouble. But never fear. In fact, it was something he had only seen on her face once before (that day - both of them hid behind the curtains – they watched from the window - mum locked the boot of the car, walked round to the side, got in, drove away). No, seeing Sally afraid at all was enough for a hot coal of dread to burst into flame in his own stomach.
[What?] He signed at her, his face showing the concern he felt. Sally shook her head, placing a finger to her lips and motioning for him to stay quiet and still while she craned her neck forward to listen carefully.
[What?] His fingers moved again and when he still received no response, David tugged at her pyjama sleeve until Sally turned to look at him, irritation rather than fear now playing across her brow.
[what? mum dad?] His fingers were a blur and David saw the understanding in his sister eyes, even though she shrugged angrily at him and pretended not to. He pulled at her sleeve again and with a massive effort forced the sounds from his throat: “maaabdaaab? “
Her face softened slightly for just an instant. Then an angry look spread over her face again and she shook her head roughly from side to side and pointed towards the floor. He understood: No, something’s wrong. There’s something downstairs. Be quiet!
Sally climbed slowly down from her bed and took the purple dressing gown which hung on the end of the bedstead. She shrugged it on and with a sideways glance at David, motioned for her brother to be quiet again.
Then, careful to avoid all of the places on the floor where she knew that the old floorboards under the green carpet creaked, Sally tiptoed towards the door.
David fell into step beside her only to have the front of his dressing gown grabbed almost immediately and to find himself pushed roughly behind his older sister. She raised the flat of her hand to him: Stay here! and frowned, still not one hundred percent sure that whatever was going on was not somehow his fault.
Seeing this suspicion on her face, David pouted madly, but fully aware of his place in the power structure that existed at number 22, Dunstable Lane (and also knowing that he was already dicing with danger by having entered the forbidden realm without an invitation or permission), he reluctantly stayed put.
Sally reached the door and opening it a crack, she slowly peeked round.
There was nothing out there; just the dark, dusty old landing.
She pulled the door open a little wider.
Dark shadows. Nothing.
Briefly looking back at her brother, she frowned: if this is a trick... then turning again, she pulled the door wide open. Still nothing.
Taking a deep breath, Sally tiptoed carefully along the passage towards her parents’ room.
She wanted to shout out for them but she didn’t for two reasons:
1. She was scared at the angry reaction she would receive at waking her parents in the middle of the night just because her good-for-nothing younger brother had had a bad dream.
2. There was something else. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on but out here in the dark, but she began to understand why David had looked so afraid.
When she reached her parents’ room, the door was still open. Peering through the darkness inside, she suddenly found it hard to swallow as the realisation that David hadn’t been fibbing sunk in. The bed was an empty shadow! She flicked the light switch. It didn’t work.
Beginning to panic now, Sally turned and quickly returned along the hallway to her bedroom.
There she found David still waiting. He looked up at his sister. She began to open her mouth but froze halfway.
Suddenly a number of things seemed to happen at once:
1. David saw his sister’s whole body tense and she spun around again towards the door.
2. Something heavy landed on the landing, its vibrations travelling through the boards beneath the carpet.
3. Two shadowy figures appeared, jumping towards the bedroom.
4. Sally fell back into her brother, knocking him over.
5. David went down hard, the wind knocked out of him, his sister’s heavy weight blocking his view of the doorway.
And there he lay helpless, unable to move and waited for whatever had invaded their house to enter the room.
Friday, 21 August 2009
[Mum?] David’s hands moved in the air in front of him as he unconsciously signed to himself. [Dad?] Then the memory came back. The memory of the something different which had awoken him. His small heart sank inside his chest. Had somebody left? Again?
He ran out of his parents’ room and looked elsewhere. The bathroom. Empty. He ran down the stairs with its dirty grey carpet. Down to the dark hall on the ground floor. Empty. He flicked the light switch but no light came on and a slippery worm of fear crept down the back of his neck. David hated the dark.
He moved through the other shadowy rooms quickly, afraid. The living room, the kitchen, the dining room: none of the lights worked and all were empty. He ran back upstairs to his parents’ room. The small boy stood there in his pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers staring at the bed. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know where to look. He…Sally!
As quickly as he had crashed into his parents’ room earlier, he now threw himself back down the corridor towards Sally’s room.
As usual, her door was shut.
He grabbed the door knob and for just a second froze. A different type of dread grabbed him: the fear of the maddened older sister. (As any eight-year-old boy will tell you: there is no dragon more monstrous, no ogre more terrifying, no witch more cackly and evil than an eleven-year-old older sister). And even now with the terrible news that he had to share, David hesitated.
You and I know, however, that the mind begins to play funny tricks on us when we are alone in the dark. And here all by himself in the middle of the night in this old, dusty, neglected corridor, the deep dark shadows suddenly made themselves known and edged just a little closer. David didn’t hesitate again. He grabbed the knob, gave the bottom of the door a good stiff kick where it usually jammed and threw himself into the forbidden realm.
SallySallySallySallySally! Her face flashed through his mind as he fell into the room.
SallySallySallySallySally! Crash! The pile of books, magazines and games that had been stacked somewhere in the middle of the room went flying.
SallySallySallySallySally! Snap! He didn’t even want to think about what it was that he had just trodden on or the revenge that it would surely provoke later that day.
SallySallySallySallySally! Something stirred under the duvet on the bed in front of him. Something angry, something older, something still capable of beating him in a fight.
“Muuuuuuuuuuum!” It started as a low, terrible moan. “Daaaaaaaaad!” Rose to a shrill crescendo. And then the dreadful, angry realisation. “He’s in my room AGAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNN!” She sat bolt upright, her blonde, shoulder-length hair flicking back from her face, her eyes (usually a startling blue in the light of day) glowering darkly.
“GET OUT! GET OUT! MUM!”
“OUT OUT OUT! DAD!”
“SHUT UP! OUT! GET OUT!”
[mum dad gone zebra garden snow gone!]
“WILL YOU JUST GE-“
CRASH! Sally froze as the sound of broken glass shattered the night!
Thursday, 20 August 2009
No one in the house heard the hiss of metal blades cutting through ice. Nor did they stir at the straining groan of hemp ropes or the complaint of wooden boards juddering to a halt. Not a soul had woken to the sharp but whispered commands of the strange crew aboard. And the muffled, fearful whimpers, bleats and squeaks hidden beneath the other sounds of the dark ship all went unnoticed.
No, the arrival of the pirate ship not fifty yards from number 22 Dunstable Lane had gone unheard for a number of reasons.
These are the reasons:
1. Sally did not hear because both she and David slept in rooms at the back of the house facing onto fields which stretched away into the dark, wooded countryside.
2. It had started to snow and the fields were slowly disappearing under a fresh, white blanket. The slow, thick, heavy flakes absorbed each creak, groan, and frightened whimper from the new arrivals like soft, white sponges.
3. The third reason was quite simply that the youngest child, David, could not hear. He was deaf.
4. There is one reason but we shall come to this as the story unfolds.
And so for all of these reasons, the sinister new arrivals went unnoticed. Until…
The eight-year-old boy’s eyes snapped opened and he was surprised to find himself in his own bed in his own room and not somewhere else entirely. For, in the first instant of waking, David knew that something was different. He wasn’t sure what it was that had woken him but something was changed, wrong, not the way it was supposed to be.
Nothing stirred and, for you and I, the house would have been completely silent. But something echoed through this silence: some strange vibration; the memory of a sound hanging in the air. The very night itself seemed to pause, and hold its breath, waiting, and David felt this.
He sat up and gasped as the cold hit him and the sweet, warm blankets slipped away. He scratched the back of his head, his fingers combing through the messy brown hair and rubbed the sleep from his bright, green eyes. Then he got out of bed, slipped on his slippers, grabbed his blue dressing gown from the floor where he had dropped it before going to bed and padded gently across the carpet to the window.
The curtains seemed to stir with movement from outside, a slow, magical, glowing movement, and a long-forgotten joy burst into life in the small boy as David realised that it was snowing.
He yanked the curtains aside and made a swift hole in the condensation on the window so that he could see outside.
Every child knows this feeling: the deep, intense pleasure of the first snow fall of the year. The delicious chill. The shiver of happiness that runs up your spine and then down again. The sharp expectation of fun that snow promises: warm gloves, hot soup, no school, snowmen, snow sledding, snow balls. Snow. Christmas.
For a brief moment, a memory of sadness filled the young boy but he quickly shook it off and allowed the glowing, alien snow-light to shine through the window and wrap him in its magic.
He watched as the flakes danced through the night air, twisting, turning, rhythmic. Almost melodic in its movement; every flake a note in a symphony of white and for a second he fancied that he understood what people meant when they spoke about music. For indeed, the falling snow was a song of silence whose lyric and tunes were built from poetry of movement. It was a song that even a Deaf boy could appreciate.
David stared out gleefully as the fields behind his house slowly disappeared beneath a white cloak. It was a good snow – it was laying. Everything began to soften: the dark trees, the garden fence, the zebra which gently nibbled on the long blades of one of his mother’s ornamental grasses.The white, icy…
Hang on ?!
David blinked and quickly rubbed his eyes. It was still there; its black mane falling over a long, striped nose.
It couldn’t be true! He pinched himself. Ow! He was definitely awake! And there, absolutely, certainly and without a doubt, was a black and white zebra munching away at the bottom of the garden.
He stared amazed as long as he dared, all the time wanting to run and shake his parents awake but scared that if he took his eyes from the chewing creature outside, then it might just disappear.
After a few minutes, during which the snow gradually built up on the window sill outside, and after he was as sure as he could be that the horse (was it a horse? He would have to look that up in his encyclopaedia later) looked like it might not just up and run away, he pulled himself back from the misted glass and ran from the room. He hurtled down the corridor, past Sally’s closed door and charged through into his parents’ bedroom.
And now we finally come to that fourth reason for why nobody had heard the peculiar goings on on this strange winter’s night: his mother and father had not heard because, to state it plainly, they were not there. Their room was empty. David’s parents were nowhere to be seen!
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
It was not a happy house; shouting echoed from its dusty, old corners.
And when the shouting stopped, the silence began and this was worse and, in a strange sort of way, louder than the shouting.
Then, one day the winter arrived and blew away the last golden dreams of autumn.
The house was home to two children, Sally and David Hargreaves, and on one cold, boring day during the Christmas holidays, they sat watching the rain dribble down the dirty windows. All they could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit (but that, as David always told me, was another story).
It was four days before Christmas but this year there was no Christmas tree, no decorations, no talking. In this silence, they felt invisible and had fallen into the huge gap which had grown between their parents. They almost wished that the shouting would start again. Almost.
Sally had even turned off the television. A very unusual thing, you may say for a young girl to do. She had started watching, but all of the programmes had been Christmassy ones and only served to remind her of what the children wouldn’t be getting this year. So off went the TV and the silence grew louder still.
At that time of year, the day crept into early night and food that was cooked without love was eaten without a word and the night grew dark and was all the darker still for no Christmas lights.
Then during the night, the temperature dropped. The pond and the river froze and the ice creaked like a dead man’s bones; and in the cold and the dark and the stillness, the black ship arrived.
Tuesday, 18 August 2009
They say that every snow flake is unique. Each one minutely different from the others. But there is one thing they have in common - they conspire to cover, to hide, to make a mystery of the world we know.
It will snow soon and magical things will be possible.
There is a delicious scrunch in the chill night air as the gate scrapes across the icy gravel and I walk up the path to the cottage.
All around, the other houses in the street twinkle festively with their fairy lights and their dangling Santas. But not here. The cottage windows are dark, empty holes and I know immediately that they will not be there.
I slip the key into the lock and the door swings open. There is no Christmas tree here. No mistletoe or wreath. Nor the usual shouts of greeting or smells of home cooking (nearly always something with dumplings and thick gravy). Here there is only the sad chill of abandonment.
I ignore the nearest doors and my feet are drawn to the end of the hall out into the empty kitchen. The light flickers on, harsh in the darkness and somehow the lit room feels lonelier than the room in darkness.
There is a package sitting on the wooden kitchen table. It has been wrapped with great care in silver and red and green. A large plain envelope sits beside it, waiting for me. A final message.
I sit at the table and listen for a second to the silence around me half expecting to suddenly hear her sing one of those songs that she would sing to me as I grew up. But there is nothing.
I have known that this day would come since I was nine years old. And for the most part, I was happy for them; but selfishly I had always hoped that it would be later rather than sooner and suddenly I miss them both deeply.
I open the envelope and slip out the papers from within. They are typed, legal documents. It has all been planned for; the cottage is now mine. There is nothing else inside so I begin to unwrap the package. Half way through, I see what it is and feel the hard lump in my throat as the last piece of paper falls to the side.
It is a carving of a small boy standing opposite a horse. One that has stood on their mantelpiece since forever. The horse leans forward and the boy has his arms wrapped around its large neck. Their foreheads touch in mutual affection.
The boy and the horse.
Any last doubt slips away with the tears which run down my cheeks. They have finally gone back and I will not see them again. Not in this world. It is the end of the story.
Outside the snow begins to fall. I sit and stare out the window and in my memories see that afternoon so long ago when my grandfather first told me the beginning of the story which was to change my life.
A tale of a ship, shadowy, dark and terrible and her cold-hearted captain with the one blazing, red eye; of the Last Ones – the strangest army in the world, who, lost in the dark, found more than they had ever bargained for; of a giant queen, a poet bear, a secret agent and a young girl who became a pirate.
A tale of hunters and hunted; of bravery, sacrifice and ingenious escapes; of mountains, frozen rivers and the light which shone between worlds. A story of a boy and a horse.
And all of it painted against a backdrop of white.
I remember the words which started the story and before I can help myself they carry me away, just like the light that carried two children to another world so long ago. The story itself started simply:
Once, not too long ago but still on the edges of memory, a house stood by a pond…
In the last few years of my time there, however, things began to change. Without going into detail, I lost both of my parents within the space of a year and things at the college where I worked took a turn for the worse.The college began a journey along a path which increasingly I felt I could not with a clear conscious follow.
Eventually I felt that I had no recourse but to leave. It broke my heart and filled me with a terrible guilt that I would be leaving my students behind.
On the day that I left every one of my students helped me carry my belongings out to the car. We hope, one said, that one day we’ll be here to help you carry them back in again. I hoped so too.
On the week before I left, in a spare moment at work and filled with feelings that I had yet to understand completely, I began to scribble the beginnings of a story. Every night more and more poured out of me onto paper and on the night that I finally left I went home and wrote furiously for three hours without stopping.
On the next morning, the first day of the rest of my life, I suddenly realised that I had the makings of something that was developing a life of its own. I had the beginning and I knew the ending, now all I had to do was work out what went on in between. And what’s more, a sudden confidence emerged from nowhere and whispered quite clearly in my ear that I was capable of doing this.
Over the next four months, I worked part-time and spent every spare moment with this story and the characters who inhabited it. It’s a cliché I know but I have to say that, honestly, most of the book wrote itself. At moments when I had no idea what would come next in the story, I would finish a chapter and suddenly the first line to the next chapter would just pop into my head. This happened so many times that I learnt to trust the fact that it was all there inside of me. Somewhere. And it was.
At the end of four months, I finally reached the words: the end. By this time, I was a different person. The anger in me at my parents’ death and the way things had turned out at work, was finally beginning to subside. The book had helped me reach this place.
It is a story, I believe, for children. But not solely for children. It is about all the things that interest me: language, communication, what makes us different and what connects us, and, ultimately, how we act when faced with injustice. It’s influences are many and varied from 101 Dalmatians to Escape from Colditz via Nosferatu , Enter the Dragon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Now I look back and can honestly say that until I wrote the first line of the story, I had never had even the vaguest desire to write a story for children nor the slightest inkling of the people and places who appeared therein. They appeared from nowhere when I needed them most. I gave myself up to them and out they came. I love them and even if they never inspire that feeling in one other person, I think that I can live with that. They appeared to me. For me. They helped me through the hardest time of my life. They fulfilled their main raison d’etre.
Now they’ve been sitting gathering dust for the last eighteen months and I feel that I haven’t done them the justice that they did me. So now I have decided to share. Re-write some sections of the book that don’t work as well as I would like them to and try (and this is the hardest thing) to make it a little shorter. I will post it chapter by chapter and await with eagerness for any comments (constructive please) from people (especially those who don’t know me and have no vested interest in keeping me happy) that can help me to make it a better novel.
I hope that you enjoy at least some of this story and if you do would ask you to let other people know about it – especially those with children of ten, eleven or above.
This is the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done. Deep breath, Graham. Here goes.