The leap, p.5
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       The Leap, p.5
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  ‘So we’re going, are we?’

  ‘Well, I said yes, Charlotte. It’ll be fun—’

  ‘Can’t you have the courtesy to ask if we want to go? James can if he wants, but I’m not. I’m going out.’

  ‘Charlotte, you know you shouldn’t spend so much time on your own.’ Mum was getting twitchy again, rubbing at the side of her face. ‘I want to have you beside me. I worry about you.’

  ‘Well stay at home then. I’ll stay in too, if that’s what you want.’

  ‘But I promised Greg. It’ll be good for you.’

  ‘No, Mum, it’ll be good for you. You go.’

  ‘I think I’ll stay here too, Mum,’ I said. ‘Charlie and I were thinking of going for a bike ride. We’ll be fine.’ I was attempting a tricky one here, trying to convince Mum that all would be well, with me implicitly ‘looking after’ Charlie, while at the same time not getting Charlie’s back up. I don’t often pull this kind of thing off. Usually, I get kind of squashed in an emotional sandwich, with both of them turning their fury round on me, but this time it worked. Mum rubbed her face a bit, then agreed with minimal moaning. I think she was glad to get a trip out on her own. She’d been hanging round after Charlie for weeks without a break.

  Charlie and I got the bikes out and wheeled them to the front of the drive.

  ‘So, where do you want to go?’ I said.

  ‘Don’t know. Just cycle. I’ll follow.’

  We set off. I sailed on ahead, trying not to look round too often to see if Charlie was keeping up. The second time I peeked, she scowled and shouted something I couldn’t catch, so I didn’t try that any more.

  We cut down through the allotments, towards the grey-brown mass of the factories. I passed the steelworks as fast as I could. Charlie used to go there a lot with Max. Not good vibes. In five minutes we were coming out of the road with corrugated fencing and down a ramp on to the canal-path. There’s a sharp left turn there, on to the ramp, and I nearly mowed down an old lady who was pausing in my blind spot while her runt of a dog peed up a lamppost. I swerved at the last second, and looking back, saw the old dear jump like a jackrabbit as Charlie’s bike motored round on an even tighter curve.

  We followed the canal along the concrete towpath for a while, past the new estates and the brewery. Finally, I needed a rest and maybe a chat. I hadn’t looked round since the ramp, so I could only assume that Charlie was still behind me. I braked, slowed and stopped. Immediately, I was nearly sent flying as Charlie’s bike crashed headlong into mine. She toppled off and fell in the grass beside the towpath. I jagged my hand against the brake lever as I jerked forward. Nasty white scrape with the skin slightly torn.

  ‘Watch it, you idiot!’ My temper was strained, but it just about held.

  ‘What did you stop so suddenly for?’ Charlie was sullenly disentangling herself from the mess of wheel and metal.

  ‘Just needed a rest. You weren’t looking, were you?’

  ‘I was following your back wheel. I was right on it.’

  ‘Idiot. You weren’t thinking. You all right?’

  ‘Of course.’

  She rubbed indifferently at a grass graze on her leg, then rolled over and looked out at the canal, where a lone duck was swimming aimlessly. All of a sudden, an anxiety hit me – what a fool I was!

  ‘Charlie, sorry – the water, does it—’

  ‘Does it what?’

  ‘I didn’t think about – you know . . .’

  ‘Oh shut up about that. It doesn’t bother me.’

  ‘Really?’ I sat down next to her. ‘Oh. That’s good.’ There were crisp packets and cans scattered in the long grass above the water, and something nasty festered nearby. It wasn’t the best spot for a chat. ‘Do you want to move on?’

  ‘I’m all right here.’

  Not the best spot, but perhaps it would do. Maybe, in a weird way, it was kind of appropriate. The duck floated past vacantly. I waited a moment, half hoping that something unexpected would happen to prevent me from asking her about it. Nothing did. I opened my mouth and began.

  ‘Charls, you’ve got to be able to talk to me. You’ve got to trust me.’

  ‘What about?’ Her voice was level, dulled; she could barely be bothered to speak, let alone add any life to it. She gazed out at the oily water.

  ‘Look, don’t think I’m going to go running to Mum or anything. You know me better than that. All I wanted to say was that you can talk to me about anything you want.’

  She smiled a little. ‘That’s what they all say.’

  ‘Well, I’ve been meaning to say it since you were back. And it’s true.’

  I paused. I knew I sounded lame. Charlie didn’t even look round.

  ‘Look. When Mum came home that first time, she told me what you’d said.’

  ‘I don’t remember anything about it now. Just leave it, J, will you?’

  ‘Well,’ I continued heavily, ‘I know that Mum reacted pretty strongly to what you said then. I won’t do that, if you want to tell me. That’s all.’

  Charlie scratched her leg intently and said nothing.

  ‘I’m really sorry about Max,’ I said.

  ‘So am I.’ There was no emotion in her voice, or in her eyes.

  ‘I’m sorry that I didn’t . . .’

  ‘Get on with him? Don’t worry about it. It’s too late for that. He didn’t like you much either.’

  Actually, I’d been going to say that I was sorry that I didn’t get to know him better. But now Charlie had put it like that, I was kind of glad she’d interrupted. I wasn’t being quite honest. When it came down to it, I hadn’t much liked him, really. He was a bit too – I don’t know – mindlessly energetic for me. Always racing about, never stopping to think. Sneaking into the factories, bunking school; I told myself that I was too mature for all that, but the truth is he made me feel a bit square. Charlie thought the world of him – and he liked her too of course. Didn’t hang around with anyone else half so much, not even any of his mates. They were always going off together, Charlie and Max – and I got a fair bit of stick for that at school. But I hadn’t realised he’d disliked me as well. Disliked by a dead kid. Don’t know how that makes me feel.

  I sat quiet for a bit, thinking this kind of thing. Charlie looked at me once or twice sidelong. Maybe she thought I was cut up about Max not liking me. Anyway, to my surprise, she broke the silence herself.

  ‘It doesn’t matter what you, or anyone else says, J. I feel quite alone, and I have done since I lost him.’

  ‘You’re not alone, Charls! I know Mum drives you mad, but she’s always there for you. And so am I.’

  ‘I don’t mean that. I mean I’ve lost him – I’m looking, but I don’t know where he is. And you can’t help me.’

  ‘What—’

  ‘It just makes me feel empty and alone. I know you and Mum and all the rest want to help, but you’re all going about it the wrong way.’

  ‘What do you want us to do?’

  ‘You’re trying to distract me; you know, with games and trips out. Even this bike ride – it’s just a diversion to keep me occupied, and not thinking of Max.’

  ‘Actually, I was trying to save you from Greg.’

  ‘Yeah. Well, fair enough. That worked.’ A small smile, the first I’d seen for a long while. I laughed a bit, willing her to laugh too. She didn’t, but her posture relaxed a little and, better than that, she carried on talking.

  ‘I don’t mind it because you’re only doing what you think is right,’ she said. ‘You’re trying to turn my attention to new things, because you think Max is dead and it would be healthy for me to look away and get on with stuff. I don’t blame you. But it’s just wrong, that’s all.’

  Something she said unsettled me deeply. I tried to be tactful. ‘What should we be doing?’

  ‘Just leaving me alone. I don’t blame you, J. It’s just that I can’t ignore Max now. I can’t leave him.’

  Can’t? ‘But, Charls,’ I said, ‘yo
u’ve got to . . . leave him sooner or later. I mean, he’d have wanted it that way.’ God, that was clichéd, but I was really struggling.

  ‘No. That’s just it. He doesn’t want it that way, I’m sure of it.’ A hard edge had returned to her voice. She wasn’t smiling any more.

  ‘You make it sound like he’s . . .’ I broke off, knowing I was on dangerous ground, but my frustration was beginning to get the better of me. ‘The thing is, Charls—’

  ‘I know what you’re going to say, and don’t say it. I think I’m going home now.’

  ‘But, Charls—’

  ‘Don’t say it. I’ve lost him for the moment, but I’m still looking. I’m on his trail. Don’t try to make me give him up completely.’ She levered herself off the ground. ‘Well, I’m going now. I’ll see you later.’

  I shouldn’t have said it, but I did. A great panic had come over me, at the sight of my sister leaving, still bound to her dead friend. It was like he was right there, standing dripping at her shoulder and calling her to follow. She was going off with him, leaving me, alive, alone. I know it sounds stupid, but she’d really put the wind up me, with all those little hints. I suddenly left tact behind, desperately wanting her to acknowledge the single basic fact before she went. I shouldn’t have said it though.

  ‘Charls,’ I said, ‘Max is dead. You’ve got to accept it sometime. It’s not your fault, but you’ve got to understand – he’s dead. You can’t find him any more.’

  ‘You’re just like all the rest!’ Blood flooded into her face, which simultaneously went white with rage. She lashed out at me with a foot and caught me on the thigh.

  ‘Ow! Charlie!’

  ‘Just leave me alone! I’ll find him on my own!’

  She seized her bicycle with a sudden violence, wrenching it up from the ground so savagely that the pedal gashed her ankle. She swore, hurled herself up on to the saddle, and was away up the towpath, leaving me to sink back among the grass and litter. I wouldn’t have cared about her shouting – or kicking me – if only she’d acknowledged the truth of what I’d said, somehow.

  ELEVEN

  JAMES AND I gave no hint of the row when Mum got back. I went upstairs early and read Tales of Arthur, lying on my bed. I was so desperate for sleep that it took me till past two to drop off, and in the meantime I had to listen to James’s snores through the wall. He never has trouble getting to sleep, and he also claims that he never dreams, which I don’t believe.

  Saturday

  It was not what I had expected. I thought it would pick up in the sandstone gorge again. Instead I was in a well of greenness. For an instant, visions of the pool swam in front of my eyes, then I grew accustomed to the light and saw that this was a different kind of greenness to that of the water. It was lighter, richer, more alive. And there was a gentle sighing above me – the noise of wind moving through leaves. I was in a forest.

  The first thing I did was get on my hands and knees and scan the ground for his tracks. But the ground was covered with a soft turf, scattered with twigs and leaves, and no footprint was to be seen. I straightened slowly. On either side, high ferns choked the spaces between thick trunks of oak and beech, heavily laden with summer leaves and moss. The light from above was filtered into a thousand shades of emerald. After the October dreariness of home this richness overwhelmed me.

  An orange glint shone through the trees to my right: it was the sun striking the peaks of the sandstone ridge that I – and Max – had crossed by way of the gorge. I felt certain that Max’s route had taken him into the forest and, looking around, I saw that there was indeed the merest suggestion of a track, a sinuous break between the ferns leading off among the trees. Without hesitation I took that way.

  This was the most delightful stage of my journey so far. The sun’s heat was kept at bay by the topmost leaves, and the air was light and scented with blossom. Thick clumps of brightly coloured flowers erupted from each bank and scutterings from the undergrowth signalled the activities of small forest creatures, although they didn’t come into view. I scanned the air for birds, but never saw a single one.

  I walked for hours but didn’t get weary. Once I came out on a high bluff and, between a natural frame of two tall silver birches, saw the forest stretching for miles all around. It faded into the blue distance until it blurred into the sky. There seemed no end to it.

  Somewhere ahead of me is Max. He is down there, drawing me on. I feel it.

  For many nights I walked through the forest. Around this time, I became more bothered than ever by James and Mum. No sooner was I awake than they were buzzing around me like flies, irritating me with irrelevant schemes. Would I come with them to the new Bishopsgate Centre? We could shop and eat out, and maybe see a film. Would I come visiting cousin Lucy in Stretford? She was dying to see me. (Oops, wrong word, Mum! Embarrassment all round, except for me.) Would I like a coach trip to Bridlington? It would be great, not too crowded out of season and we could eat fish and chips down on the—

  No! None of it, thank you! Leave me alone!

  Except . . . some of their schemes had a good side: they knackered me out ready for the evening. Nothing was worse than those nights when I was too excited to sleep, when my desire to enter the forest made me toss and turn and get more and more frustrated and finally stopped me from sleeping properly, so that I spent hardly any time there. So in the end I began to agree to many of my family’s stupid plans, especially ones that involved physical exercise. Best of all was when James suggested going swimming. I agreed immediately and took to going to the pool with him almost every evening when he got back from school.

  I also hoped the exercise would help me in my explorations of the forest. I found that I always woke up bone weary, with muscles aching after my long hours of walking, so I wanted to get as fit as I possibly could. All in all, I made the best of a bad lot. At least the dragging daytimes now had a worthwhile purpose.

  However, for several weeks my dreams were barely worth recounting. I progressed still deeper into the endless forest and saw neither tracks nor any signs of life. Although still sure I was following Max’s trail, I began to wish for something to break the monotony of the journey and became a little listless and depressed.

  Then everything changed.

  The path ran upwards through the wood between thick clumps of dark trees. Boulders covered with lichen were piled up beside the steep, stony path. It was hard going, and my breath began to labour a little, almost for the first time since I entered the forest. Pretty soon, if I looked behind me, I could see across the tops of the trees to the horizon. The sun was low, and there was a reddish stain in the western sky.

  Ahead of me rose a tall craggy rock face, naked at the top but with small gnarled bushes extending from crevices up and down its sides. The path angled right, circling the base of the crag, and soon it began to rise sharply, until my progress resembled the climbing of a steep staircase. On my left was the cliff wall, on my right, as the path rose above the level of the trees, an open gulf of tumbled rocks and scree.

  At last, when it seemed that I must have circled the entire pinnacle of crag, the path suddenly ducked away into a fissure that split the rock in two, and adopting a more horizontal plane, wound its way between two cliff faces spotted with withered scrub. This ended abruptly on an open shelf covered with thin grass, which over-looked the forest.

  For miles in all directions the endless olive-dark trees stretched. With the sun now setting, the whole western half of the forest was soaked with red, as if with a liquid fire. I shielded my eyes from the glare, and looked down on the trees, on dozens of distant glades, on narrow strips of land where the forest had fallen back. In one was a tall dim shape, shaded from the dying light, which might have been a rock similar to the one on which I stood, or perhaps a castle with turrets projecting out of it at many angles. In another, a great sheet of water lay calmly, reflecting dully the pale evening sky. In another . . .

  There was a single strip of open land ex
tending away to the north, so long and straight-sided that it was almost a natural rectangle. It seemed fairly close to my crag, separated only by a narrow band of forest; at any rate, it was close enough for me to pick out a solitary figure moving northwards across it, between the trees.

  The figure was so far away, and the light was fading so quickly that it was hard to make out anything definite. But there was something about the short, slow stride and the hunched shoulders that told me I knew him.

  ‘Max!’

  I shouted my lungs out, there on that flat, grassy shelf at the top of the crag, as the red sun was drawn down into the trees and the light faded. My voice was swallowed by the evening air. The figure did not turn, but continued its steady progress, familiar and far off, until the glade and everything in it were swallowed by a blanket of reddish-tinged black. And I carried on shouting and shouting until the darkness spilt over the edges of the glade and enveloped the trees around it, and the stars came out overhead and echoed with my cries.

  My voice ran out. I was hoarse with shouting. I gave up and lay down, and closed my eyes against the tears that welled up now that the possibility had gone. But there was a fierce feeling of defiance in me too, because I had seen him – I had seen the friend that everyone thought was dead.

  TWELVE

  MY CHEEKS AND hands were still sticky with drying tears when I raised my head and saw that it was morning. Heavy rain pattered against the window behind the curtains. The light was poor, but my bedroom door was open and someone was standing in the room. It was my brother.

  ‘What are you doing here?’ I was bruised with sleep and could hardly make him out.

  ‘I wondered if you were all right.’ There was a shiftiness in his voice. He was lying. ‘I thought I heard you crying out. Were you having nightmares?’

  ‘No. What were you doing in my room?’

  ‘I told you—’

 
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