The leap, p.3
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       The Leap, p.3
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  Mum’s instinct was to stay well clear. We’ve never got on brilliantly and she knew she was treading on eggshells even more than normal now. I attempted to avoid her as much as possible, keeping to my room while she was downstairs watching telly. She rarely intruded, except for the first evening I was back. I was sitting on my bed, not doing much, when she stuck her head round the door.

  ‘Can I come in?’

  ‘You’re half in already, Mum.’

  She came over and sat on the far edge of the bed. ‘How are you doing?’

  ‘I’m fine.’

  ‘You don’t have to stay up here. Why don’t you come down? There’s a good film on.’

  ‘I’m all right, Mum. Don’t worry about it.’

  ‘Well—’ She cast about for something else to say and hit on it with relief. ‘I spoke to Mr Drover today, about you missing school. There’s no problem; he’s fine with you taking a bit of time off. He sends his best wishes. The whole school does. I told him you’d got the card. It’s nice that they’re all thinking of you.’

  Yeah, nice. Everyone in the class signed their love. Including Snivvens.

  I gave Mum a special non-smile. She ploughed on.

  ‘I don’t think you need to be off for long, but I don’t want you to get bored. There are lots of things we can do to keep busy. We could go on day trips.’

  ‘You’ll be at work, Mum.’

  ‘I’ve taken another week off, sweetheart. After that, well, we’ll see. It’s only part-time anyway, so we’ll have plenty of opportunity to do things.’

  ‘You don’t need to do that, Mum.’ She hardly gets any holiday as it is. ‘I’ll be fine. I can go out.’

  I was feeling okay towards Mum at that point, but then she went ahead and ruined it again. Her voice stiffened. ‘I’m not having you wandering the streets on your own, Charlotte. That’s final. We can do lots of things together, and with James too. And Greg’s offered to let us all come over at weekends, if we want. There’s plenty to do.’

  ‘Whatever.’ I’d lost interest again and was looking out of the window.

  Ordinarily, Mum’s words would have made me furious. I’d go where I pleased. She wasn’t going to keep me on a leash and there was no way in hell I’d spend a weekend with Greg and his disgusting son. He’s Mum’s new bloke. Greg, I mean, not the son. But I couldn’t summon up the energy to be angry. What was the point?

  ‘I’m a bit tired, Mum,’ I said. ‘I might have a sleep.’

  ‘All right, dear.’ She got up heavily. I rolled over, facing away to the window, but I could hear her pause at the door. ‘Charlotte love, if you ever want to talk about anything, you know I’ll always listen.’

  She waited for an answer, but I’d already closed my eyes and was looking into a blank green haze. In the distance, I could hear the door shut softly.

  On the Thursday after I got home, I visited the doctor’s for the first time. It was on the other side of town, a big house in a leafy street. I’d expected a surgery, but it seemed to be Dr Tilbrook’s own place. He opened the door himself and showed us in to his lounge, filled with lousy black furniture and a few magazines on a coffee table. Mum had to wait there. I was taken through to the next room, which was his study. I sat in a comfy chair and he sat opposite. There were Athena prints on the wall behind him and beyond the patio doors a long unkempt garden stretched away.

  ‘Hi, Charlotte,’ Dr Tilbrook said.

  ‘Hi,’ I said.

  I looked at him with what I hoped was an open cooperative look. My plan was the same as ever – to be as reasonable as possible and get out quick. Even then, when I was still pretty stupid and shaken up and had lost Max from view, I knew what they were trying to push on me.

  ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Charlotte,’ Dr Tilbrook said. He paused. An acknowledgement was required.

  ‘Thanks,’ I said.

  He was very tall and beany so that he folded himself rather than sat in the chair. He seemed quite young, except for little wrinkles around the eyes, and he had a big mop of floppy hair with a hanging fringe which every now and then drooped forward so far it looked like it would cover his eyes. He had the habit of flicking it back into place with a little shake of his head and never once moving his long thin hands, which lay out flat in his folded lap.

  ‘I’m sorry about your loss,’ he said. ‘I heard what happened.’

  Of course you did, I thought. What a stupid thing to say. Why else would I be here?

  ‘I’m here for you to talk to,’ he went on. ‘That’s all. The doctors who looked after you at the hospital thought that it would be good if you had someone who could listen, if you wanted to talk about things. There’s nothing more to it than that. I’m just here to listen.’

  He paused. I didn’t give him anything to listen to. I found I had a sudden urge to turn my head away from him and look out at the garden. I could just see it out of the corner of my eye. Green trees, long grass, and a slab of silvery-grey that might have been a long low rock or even a pond. But I knew that the more I co-operated the quicker things would be. So I smiled vaguely at him.

  ‘How are you feeling at the moment, Charlotte?’ Dr Tilbrook asked. He never took his eyes off me.

  ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘You know.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think I do know really. You’ve had an experience that none of us can imagine – your mother, your brother, or me. But you mustn’t feel that you’re alone. We’re all wanting to reach out and help, every one of us. In fact, everyone you meet, everyone who knows about it, will want to help you if they can. You mustn’t forget that.’

  I thought about Snivvens and Fat-boy. I smiled vaguely again.

  ‘Do you feel you can talk about it at all, Charlotte? Have you chatted to anyone?’

  The itch to look out into the garden was terrible now and I didn’t want to look at his face either. I compromised by looking at his flowery tie, hanging down low above his long still hands.

  ‘I’ve told people what happened,’ I said. This was true. In fact I’d told people a couple of different versions, but I wasn’t about to tell them again to him.

  ‘I know it is difficult to talk,’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t worry about that. But you shouldn’t bottle things up either.’

  I shrugged. ‘I’m fine.’

  ‘Look, Charlotte.’ Dr Tilbrook stretched out a long thin arm, further than you’d think possible. He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a small book with a red binding. ‘You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. We’ll meet again next week and maybe you’ll want to then. But there’s something you might wish to do if you feel like it. And that’s write things down, when they occur to you. Do you write a diary?’

  I shook my head. Nope. Except sometimes for school. Dr Tilbrook nodded.

  ‘I don’t either. But I do sometimes make notes of things, when they’re important and I want to remember them. I use a special notebook. Blank, like this one. Take it, if you like. If you feel something’s inside you and has got to be said, write it down here. No one else will read it, but it’s good to get things off your chest.’

  He reached over and handed me the book. ‘Thanks,’ I said. I didn’t open it.

  ‘Right. Well, it was nice to meet you. I’ll see you again soon.’

  He unfolded himself and went to the door. As I went out, I allowed myself a quick glance at the garden. The sun was lighting up the leaves and I saw that the grey slab of colour was a stone in a rockery beside a path that led off under the trees. It was a pretty garden and I had a sudden desire to break off and walk up the path on my own, but the door Dr Tilbrook opened for me led off to the front, to Mum, the car and the road.

  FIVE

  I WAS TREADING through long damp grass, barefoot. With every step, new stipples of wetness prickled my toes and the sides of my feet. Directly above me, the sky was a deep blue, darkening into night, but to left and right both sky and grass faded quickly into nothingness. I was walking along a narro
wing strip towards a single spot-lit point.

  What was at that point? Nothing but a dark still circle, lying in the grass. I knew it for what it was: the pool, just as I remembered it, in every detail. The fringe of stone, the shadow of the trees, the motionless water waiting.

  I walked and walked, and though I seemed to see the pool more clearly with every step, so that soon I could pick out the individual cracks in every stone, see the smears of mould and lichen gumming up the joins between, still I felt myself no nearer to it. A great anxiety swelled in me; a terrible urge to reach the water before something dreadful and very imminent happened. But I could not increase my pace, no matter how I tried.

  And then he was there, standing in the water, with only his feet and ankles hidden, for all the world as if it were as shallow as a baby’s paddling tub. He was as still as stone; with his arms hanging loosely and his head cocked slightly to one side, he and the water could both have been carved from a single piece of marble so motionless were they. And though I was far off, I could see every line and contour of his pale, pale face, and the living eyes looking at me.

  Then, just as he opened his mouth to speak to me, the pool sucked him down. His hair billowed briefly like fronds upon the surface and was gone.

  With one great effort, I wrenched myself forward. I was beside the pool, looking into the opaque waters. I could see nothing, but I knew he was there below me, close enough to touch, with his arms outstretched towards the air. I strained my eyes to either side, in case the enemy was waiting, but nothing was visible at all.

  The green waters waited.

  And so, without even pausing to draw breath – I leaped.

  SIX

  CHARLIE GAVE US our first shock that morning. It was Saturday, around eleven o’clock and she still hadn’t turned up for breakfast. Mum started prowling round the kitchen, pointedly removing various items from the table until only the bare minimum bowl, mug, and spoon were left with a token packet of cereal. The old Mum would have got tetchy much earlier, but these days she and I were both on our best non-irritable behaviour. As eleven o’clock came and went and Charlie still didn’t appear, I volunteered to put my head round her door and give her a friendly prod.

  She was gone. Her bed was rumpled and slept in, but it was now Charlie-less, and her trainers and coat weren’t obvious either. Something sharp jabbed into my intestines as I pelted downstairs and shouted to Mum.

  ‘She’s gone! She’s not in her room.’

  Mum’s face seemed to cave in with worry, as if someone had pulled a support out from under the skin. ‘Don’t, James – you’re frightening me. She’ll be in the bathroom. Did you look there?’

  ‘She’s not in the bathroom, Mum. The door was open.’

  ‘But did you look?’

  ‘No! All right, I’ll look – but she isn’t.’ I pounded up the stairs and looked, and of course she wasn’t. Or in Mum’s or my room either. I ran back down, and straight out the back. Charlie’s bike was gone from the shed. Mum’s anxiety morphed into a series of unanswerable questions.

  ‘When did she go? How did she slip out? How long have you been awake? I thought you were keeping an eye on her.’

  ‘How the hell do I know where she is? I thought I heard her when I came down for breakfast – but that was two hours ago. She could be anywhere. Shut up and think for a minute.’

  We stood either side of the kitchen table, neither of us able to sit down. Between us sat the forlorn and lonely packet of Rice Krispies and the tidy, empty bowl. I stood there thinking. Since she’d come back, she’d not gone out much on her own – down the shops a couple of times, perhaps – and each time she’d told Mum where she was going. This felt different. She must have gone out really early, before either of us was awake.

  ‘It’s no good,’ Mum said. ‘She could be anywhere – stop doing that!’ I was drumming my fingers on the sink cupboard door. Mum was rubbing the side of her face, as she does when she’s really upset. It’s been red and sore for days now. I stopped drumming. A really horrid thought had struck me.

  ‘Mum, you don’t think she’ll have gone back, do you?’

  ‘God, James, how can you say that? She’d never go back, never . . .’ Mum broke off and looked me in the eye. I didn’t say anything.

  We were out of the house and into the car in thirty seconds, and that was including me going back to slam the front door, which Mum had left open. She turned the key in the ignition, and the engine failed. Mum pulled out the choke too far and flooded it. She swore. She tried again. It ground and growled. The car was hot and stuffy. A stench of panic hung in the air. On the third time, the engine started. Mum sat back as she pulled out of the drive, and I realised we had both been bolt upright in our seats, rigid at the delay.

  Neither of us said anything on the journey out of town. I was busy figuring out the route Charlie might have taken – along the canal path and down on to the B-road behind Sainsbury’s. Took you to within a mile of Bingham, and from there it was only another mile or so to the mill. I reckoned Charlie could have done it in an hour, door to door. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything that would have held her up. Even if she’d dawdled, she’d have been there well over an hour before us, minimum. An hour at the pool. Christ! I suppose Mum was thinking similar things. She didn’t drive well and nearly mowed down one deaf old boy who tried a bit of jaywalking.

  We got to Bingham in fifteen minutes, and shot up the lane to the mill, screeching to a halt by the main gate. I was out before the car stopped, and began pelting up the path towards the mill stream, leaving Mum to follow along behind. I pounded over a cattle grid, and saw, beyond the field, a fringe of trees. I knew what they were. It was still some distance away, but you’d see if anyone was standing there, and there wasn’t.

  I vaulted the fence and ran over the field, skidding in at least one fresh cow turd on the way. Halfway across, I began to see – here and there on the trunks of a few trees – little bright scraps of plastic tape that the police had forgotten to remove. I felt sick. Far behind sounded snatched coughs and Mum’s faltering footfalls. I clambered over the barbed wire at the other end, snagging my jeans en route, and staggered to a standstill beside the pool. My breathing was as ragged as my jeans.

  The pool had been covered over. A rough platform of wooden boards, obviously cobbled together from anything available, had been laid out across the entire circular surface of the pool. It was bolted down with giant rivets, which fixed the end of each board to the solid stone beneath. It was some feat to do the whole thing that way – it was a big area – but you couldn’t see one bit of water. The mill stream ran under the boards at one side, and ran out again at the other, and at both places a metal grille, securely fixed, hung down into the sluggish water. The whole thing was very ugly and extremely secure.

  Thank God for that. Even if she had come, she’d have been unable . . . well, the bloody thing was closed over and that was enough.

  I turned to watch Mum negotiating the far fence, and then I saw Charlie, sitting hunched and hidden in the shadow of the nearest plum tree, staring at the boards.

  She was crouched low and her hair hung over her eyes so that you couldn’t see them. Her arms were clasped round her knees and her chin rested on top. She made absolutely no sign at all that she had seen me, her big brother, coming racing over the fields like a fool after her. All around her was a mess of torn flowers and plastic wrapping. The petals were scattered like confetti and the stalks were ripped and weeping.

  ‘Charlie.’ I went over to her. ‘Charlie?’

  She made an ‘Mmph’ sound into her knees. I didn’t know what to say. Savaged flower heads lay all around.

  ‘Are you okay?’ No answer to that. She didn’t look up, just stared straight ahead through tangles of hair at the hideous boards.

  ‘Come on, Charlie. It’s me. Mum’s here too.’

  ‘Great.’ That was a good sign. She sounded a little like her grumpy old self again.

 
‘Come on,’ I said again. ‘How long have you been here?’

  ‘I don’t know. Not long.’

  ‘What’s all these flowers, Charls?’

  ‘James! Is she there?’ I peered round the side of the plum tree. Mum was approaching the near fence. She had given up running and was looking uncertain at the prospect of mounting the wire.

  ‘Yeah. Everything’s fine, Mum. Come back with us, Charlie. Where’s the bike?’

  ‘Look, I’m just sitting, all right? Just leave me in peace, OK?’

  ‘Well, we were worried. You should have told us where you were going.’

  ‘Yeah right, and you’d have let me go, would you? All right – I’m coming now. I don’t want Mum to cause a scene here.’ Muffled curses were coming from the fence.

  That wasn’t fair on Mum, really – even Charlie must have known that. But I sort of saw what she meant. There was a grey solemnity about the spot which would go out of the window if Mum and Charlie started arguing.

  ‘I’ll help you up then.’ I stretched out a hand. Unexpectedly, Charlie took it. Her nails and fingers were stained green up to the second knuckle.

  She got up stiffly. Mum was over the fence now and I put my arm round Charlie and led her over. I was keen to prevent Mum seeing the massacred flowers.

  ‘Charlie!’ Mum enfolded her. ‘We’ve been worried sick, sweetheart.’

  Charlie was quite passive. ‘I’m okay, Mum. My bike’s behind that tree.’

  We collected the bike and wheeled it back to the car. All the way home, Mum chattered on gamely about nothing much, having enough sense to keep off the morning’s events. Charlie sat beside her, saying nothing. I was in the back, with the mucky bike wheel pressing against my neck from behind, thinking about the shredded flowers. I could just see Charlie’s spattered hands resting demurely in her lap.

  After lunch, Mum went out. I suspected she was gone to get advice. Charlie and I stayed in and watched a crap western. By now, she had washed the evidence away.

 
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