The leap, p.15
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       The Leap, p.15
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  ‘Charls?’

  All of a sudden I saw. It was my brother, standing there as large as life on the trodden grass outside the Great Fair, bending forward with his hands on his knees looking at me.

  ‘Can’t find a way,’ I said.

  ‘What?’ He was as stupid as ever.

  ‘I can’t find a way in. I’m looking, but it’s impossible. I can’t find the way.’ He frowned and faded. The spattering of lights and colours that had surrounded him disappeared too, and I was just looking out across the plain into the dusk.

  Perhaps I slept then, I don’t recall, but after an unknown time I suddenly became aware of myself again and found I was in two places at once, sitting on the sofa in my old home while still resting against the palisade. I could feel both the hardness of the wood and the sagging softness of the leather against my back and shoulders. Directly in front of me, the endless plain stretched away and the living room window looked out on to our neighbour’s wall.

  There was no difference in strength between the two worlds. They coexisted. The ground in front of me was both half-trodden grass and the mouldy old carpet that Mum couldn’t afford to replace. There was a faint radiance emanating from behind me that lit up that ground and I could not tell whether it was caused by the illuminations of the Fair or our kitchen light. Perhaps it was both.

  I had been sitting there for a little while, looking at nothing in particular, before I realised what I had to do. It came to me suddenly, like a lightning flash of hope amid the blackness all around, and I knew that it was my last chance.

  All this time I had been searching for Max alternately in both worlds but I had never, or almost never, had the chance to operate in them both at once. I had had to start from scratch each time, hunting in the forest, or seeking Max out in our shared places in town. And though, in my world, I’d almost found him several times, each time getting closer than the last, something had always thwarted me. But now the two worlds were fused and I was right on the edge of the Fair, closer to Max than I had ever been. Perhaps now, if I let myself be guided by my dual vision, I could harness the clues both worlds gave me and find a way through.

  For the moment, there was no point concentrating on the world of the Fair: I had run up against a barrier there. So I must grit my teeth and focus on the other, the old and shabby world, and see where it took me.

  I was beyond thinking, I must be guided. And right ahead of me was the window.

  First I must escape. Cautiously, I looked over my shoulder. I saw solid wood and the view towards the kitchen door. The light was on in there: I could hear someone moving about, clanking pans and cupboard doors. It was time for me to slip away. I got to my feet, unsure whether I was treading on carpet or grass. Then I walked unsteadily towards the window. It wasn’t easy going at first. I kept looking too far ahead, at the dim expanse of the plains, and consequently nearly walked bang into the wall.

  Fortunately, when I found the handles, the sash opened upwards smoothly and without a sound and I was able to climb through. Then I set off down the side-passage, through our yard, out into the alley and away – down the street, across the plains. Easy.

  The strange thing is that as soon as I started moving, I knew the direction I had to go. Not consciously, but quite clearly, as if a voice were calling me from somewhere up ahead, directing me at every junction or place of doubt. At all times, the dual perspective remained: I passed by lines of houses, clumps of trees, roads with moving cars and hummocks of grass covered with discarded carts and piles of logs. Often I passed people too, always from the drabber world, walking the pavements instead of the meadows. Their faces were curiously indistinct and shadowy to me and I did not look at them.

  It was night-time in both worlds, and this helped my progress because it ironed out the worst of the differences and blended the two together in a grey-black mass. One curious exception was the effect of the street-lights that I passed. Whenever I came alongside one, the walls and the pavements bathed by its glow sprang out with great clarity, dampening down the glimpses of the meadow within the cone of light. Once I passed out of its pool, the street picture sprang back instantly to become the neutral equal of the darkened field. When cars passed, their headlamps briefly bisected the darkness, illuminating moving triangles of road and building which quickly disappeared from view, to be replaced by a deeper, double-layered darkness.

  The sounds of the worlds blended also: I could hear cars passing but only faintly and always slightly distorted as if I were listening from under water. Similarly, noises of owls calling from nearby trees sounded muted, echoing and strange.

  In this manner, moving slowly and with great care, I progressed through the two worlds at once. Nothing hindered me, nothing frightened me, no wolves, no cars, no nothing. I felt myself safe, suspended between the dangers of each place. And all the time, something undefined guided me and called me on.

  Then, right ahead, I saw that I had not been mistaken in my hope. I saw what I was looking for. The fusion of the two worlds: a new gateway to the Fair.

  Perhaps it was always there, that tiny forgotten door in the endless palisade, perhaps I had even passed it already in my wanderings. But I would never have found it without the linking of the two worlds.

  My path had taken me out into the darkening meadows, away from the great fence, following the vague zigzag patterns of the spot-lit streets. For much of this time, I had lost sight of the Fair altogether, submerged into the dusk behind me. But now I saw the fence ahead of me once more. The road that I was following led straight towards it, through the grasses towards a blurry point of light. I hastened forward and as I drew near, saw that the great smooth spikes of the palisade now shared their space with a second barrier, a ring of black metal railings that faded away on either side of the single lit space.

  Now I was nearer still, and the diffuse smear of light coalesced into a series of concrete images. There was a gap in the railings, a wide one, with light spilling through it to illuminate the neat hopscotch slabs of the pavement outside. Beside it, in an indefinite huddle of half-shapes, was a line of people, ghost-frail and see-through, stretching away to one side. I saw them, but took no notice, for here too, in precisely the same place, was a door in the smooth log wall, a simple gap where two great staves had been cut off at ankle height, leaving a hole to step through.

  And beyond it was a blur of colour and movement, the true source of the light that jetted out and bruised my face where I stood in the darkness.

  I was standing still now, gazing at the vision with open mouth. And suddenly a weaker beam of light fell on me from the left. I half glanced to my side, barely caring, and saw two orbs of ugly neon yellow racing towards me, turning the meadow in its path to flashing tarmac as it came. And some distant memory came looping down to me over the fence of my absorption and told me I must run.

  And run I did, towards the gap.

  There was a whirl of noise and motion. I felt the car pass close behind, saw the gap loom up at great speed as I ran. Distorted voices cried out, faceless images turned towards me and stretched out clawing hands to bar my way. I ran at full speed, head down, fists clenched, and as the final figure rose up, vast and menacing, I closed my eyes tight shut and leaped into the light.

  THIRTY ONE

  i.

  I PASSED THROUGH the gap into a place of light and noise. With my blinded eyes closed, my ears deafened, I landed on solid earth and charged forward pell-mell. I barged through a mass of bodies, sensing repeated contact but feeling nothing.

  As I ran, my ears adjusted to a whirl of sound: I heard an overlapping of voices, shouts, whisperings, snatches of music, scufflings and metallic clangs. They all seemed to fall in upon each other and cancel each other out. The noise faded to a muffled undercurrent. My eyes grew accustomed to the light. I came to a gradual halt and raised my head to the world around.

  I was standing in the midst of a marvellous confusion, the place where fairs from two worlds met and mingl
ed. And though they existed separately, I saw that they interacted with a chaotic harmony that was entirely lacking beyond their boundaries.

  First, there were the people of the fairs. They walked among – and through – each other with a fluid ease, each crowd a reflection and extension of the other. I could not make out faces clearly, but I could see among them children of the town and of the forest, some holding ice creams or candy-floss, others strange tangles of black and red threads frozen in a latticed ball and fixed on the end of sticks. With them walked the adults, among them familiar men and women from the terraces and alley-backs. These were dwarfed and made dumpy by the slender people from the forest, all willowy grace and sinew and long straight hair. Back and forth and through and through, the seas of people wove their way around each other, and crashing waves of noise I barely heard broke endlessly upon me.

  I began to weave my way through the crowds and found that both layers of people steered round me as I went. Alone of all the multitude, I walked in both fairs; with every step, I brushed past crinkled anoraks, woolly jumpers, silken tunics, bare brown arms.

  On either side, rising like cliffs above the flood of heads, the stalls and tents displayed their wares. They mixed the familiar and the strange: tarpaulined coconut shies and rifle-ranges overlapped with gaudy booths where laughing longhaired men and women threw silver balls at bulb-shaped pots suspended from the trees. If a pot was broken, a reward fell to earth – a shower of coins, a strip of silk, a living bird tied to a stone.

  The stall roofs were covered with the ephemera of the fairs: mingled balloons and birdcages, streamers and loudspeakers, weather-stained canvases and fine striped silk. I paused by a contraption of wood and springs, where children were placed in cushioned baskets and tossed in arcs from one side of a giant seesaw to another. This was superimposed on an open-sided caravan where a man and woman sold hot-dogs and steaming soup to a chilly crowd. A constant stream of other delights flowed past me. A bear danced by, then a woman selling choc-ices, next a man spinning along in a wheel of bone. My eyes were saucer-shaped, dazzled by it all.

  But I had not forgotten him, not quite. I still remembered why I had come here and for whom. All this time, my eyes were peeled and scanning, this way and that, searching the crowd for Max.

  A tall man with a broad-brimmed hat, narrow eyes and a wide smile swooped in front of me, offering bags of sweets from a tray. I could not tell which world he was from. I shook my head, he shrugged, still smiling, whirled round behind me and was gone. A woman walked past on stilts, throwing confetti on those below. It fell on my shoulders like red and yellow rain.

  Max was nowhere to be seen. I moved on into a place where games were being played. The rivers of people swept tightly around the margins of an open area, where rusty dodgems and bite-sized roundabouts vied with the team sports of the people of the forest, played with hand-held coloured hoops and long silver nets. I was crushed and buffeted among the pressing throngs, their eyes aflame with food, drink and the heady delights of the night fair. Children of two worlds moved in front of me, faces smudged and absent – twice I started forward to accost the one I knew, twice I fell back thwarted as blank faces turned on me. I was wandering blindly among strangers. Max was not here among the crowds. I drifted further on.

  ii.

  I nearly got beaten up as I pushed my way through the New Park swarms. I was swinging my head from side to side like a madman, craning round people’s shoulders to see if Charlie was beyond them, not looking where I was going. So I soon collided with someone and of course it was a massive bloke with a studded jacket. He wheeled round before I could say anything.

  ‘Look where you’re going.’

  ‘Sorry.’

  ‘You stupid or something? You’d better apologise a bit faster next time, sonny.’

  ‘Yes, sorry.’

  I let the crowd pull me away and wandered miserably on. I couldn’t see more than three feet in any direction. I hadn’t a chance of finding Charlie. I might have passed her already if some fat sod had been standing in the way. I stumbled on between the rifle range and the raffle tent. Middle-aged ladies were buying tickets for bottles of wine and scented soaps. Crowds of boys shot guns at moving ducks, laughing at each other’s miss. No sign of Charlie anywhere. My arms felt knotted with tension.

  ‘James.’

  It took a couple of calls for me to hear and turn around. A boy from up our street.

  ‘You looking for your sis?’

  ‘Yeah. How d’you know?’

  ‘I saw her bust in. You’re not the only one looking for her. She mad or something?’

  ‘What’s she done?’

  ‘Bust in without paying. Bloke from the fair went after her but didn’t catch her far as I know. She must have been really moving.’

  ‘Bloody hell.’

  ‘Better catch her before he does, mate.’

  I didn’t need telling. I plunged into the fray again, moving fast as I could, ducking and weaving, turning and looking. It was a nightmare – the yellow-red lighting and the thick pooling darkness turned everyone’s faces inside out; I couldn’t make out colours or features at all. So many kids, so many girls, all of her size, and her hair and her clothes, and moving, melting into each other so fast I couldn’t be sure what I could see. It was a nightmare from one end of the fair to the other and I couldn’t find my sister anywhere.

  iii.

  As I walked deeper in and ever-new wonders met my eyes, I became dimly aware that the balance between the two worlds had subtly altered – and that one level was fading from me. As I watched, the people of the town with their heavy coats pulled high against the cold began to grow fainter and more wraith-like. Slowly, smoothly, their outlines thinned and flickered, while those of the people of the forest became harder, stronger, fatter with colour and definition. The town stalls faded too and, as they disappeared entirely, the delights of the Great Fair swelled with colour and I heard for the first time the full force of its merry instruments and throats.

  A man was sitting on a stool not far from me, surrounded by what looked like a mass of giant porcupine quills sticking into the earth. From each was suspended a paper lantern giving off a coloured light. He saw me watching him and beckoned.

  ‘Enjoying the Fair, my love?’ he asked me as I approached.

  ‘Yes, very much,’ I said, stopping at the fringe of the forest of quills. Each one was very sharp at the tip. The nearest lantern cast green light upon my face.

  ‘Take one to light your way,’ he said, gesturing with long fingers.

  ‘I don’t have any money,’ I said politely. He shook his head, smiling.

  ‘Take one. Everything in the Fair is free.’

  ‘I am looking for the Great Dance,’ I said. ‘Do you know where it will take place?’

  ‘Up the hill of course, on the far side of the Fair. You had better hurry.’

  ‘It hasn’t started yet, has it?’ I felt a thrill of panic.

  ‘Soon. If you are going up the hill, you had best take a lantern.’

  I reached out and touched the nearest quill. A sharp pain pierced me and the lantern hanging from the end shuddered. I drew my hand back and inspected it: there was a drop of blood on my middle finger. The man on the stool was watching me with sharp eyes. Suddenly I wanted to get away. I turned and hurried into the crowd.

  A few minutes more and the crowds around me had thinned considerably. I was walking slightly uphill, away from the centre of the Fair. A woman approached, leading a small infant by the hand. As I passed, the child turned its head and looked at me with huge expressionless green eyes. I dropped my gaze and hastened on.

  A young man fell into step beside me.

  ‘Where are you going, my dear?’ he said.

  ‘To the Dance. Is this the way?’

  ‘Yes, but you must hurry. Why do you go?’

  ‘I am looking for a friend who will dance there.’

  ‘And you will dance too?’

  ‘N
o . . . that’s not why . . .’ I became silent. It was hard to explain.

  He laughed lightly. ‘Well, whyever you go, you haven’t much time. This year’s dancers are all assembled, save one. The music will soon begin. Follow the lit way.’ Then he dropped back a little and was left behind.

  I was almost out beyond the last few stalls, out of the ring of light and sound. Ahead was a path, lit by trees decked out with coloured candles. It snaked its course up the steepening hill under the stars. I began to run, following the trail of illuminated trees.

  iv.

  It was no good. I was worn out, ready to burst from frustration. I had searched the whole fête, for what it was worth, to no avail. I had to rest. I stopped beside a burger stand where a man with tattooed arms was nudging pieces of meat across a hotplate. I was hungry. I’d never had my pasta. I paid over my pound and stood quietly while the man put together a burger with too much onion. Then I propped myself against a caravan wall out of the main flow of traffic and ate it. It wasn’t as hot as it looked.

  I might have missed her in the fête, but somehow I didn’t think so. She wasn’t trying to hide; whether asleep or awake she was doing something all on her own and wasn’t concerned about anyone else. If she’d been among the stalls I’d have found her by now.

  So where was she? Somewhere in the New Park, but that didn’t help me because it stretched out beyond the lit area of the fête in three directions, past playing fields and new plantations of trees up to the edge of the hill. I’d never be able to find her now, at night. Hopeless.

  I dropped the last bit of undercooked burger on the ground and wiped my hands on my trousers. She had come here for a reason – all I had to do was work out what it was. The fair had attracted her: she’d dreamed about Max in one. So why wasn’t she here now?’

  I thought back to what I’d read in her book. She’d spent a lot of time looking for him in their old haunts – down at his house, among the cars. Perhaps that’s what she was doing again – hunting his ghost in places they’d shared.

 
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