The leap, p.6
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       The Leap, p.6
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  ‘Oh get out.’ I’d had enough. I wanted to write down about Max – not that I was ever likely to forget it. James went, without arguing, which was another sign that he’d been lying. I picked up the open notebook lying ready on the cabinet. Had he seen it? Possibly. From now on, I would keep it in its hiding place at night, just in case my brother came snooping around again.

  That Saturday could not go fast enough. It dragged on and on with a slowness that terrified me. In the afternoon I went to the cinema with a friend of mine from school. Alice had rung me a few days before and in a weak moment I’d agreed to go. How I regretted it now: I was far too distracted to talk much and Alice and I were sitting in silence even before the adverts started. Alice ate popcorn with a rhythmic action. I sat gazing at the darkened curtain, struck by an agonising thought. It had never struck me before, but now I began to wonder exactly how time in the forest compared to time at home. Perhaps for every minute I spent awake, a minute passed in the forest too. If so, I was doomed. I would never catch up with Max. While I was here, dawdling through interminable hours with people I hardly knew, Max would be walking on, never pausing, never flinching, moving further and further away. I swear every second of that day was agony for me.

  In the evening I went to the baths and swam forty lengths. I was determined to tire myself, so I jogged home too. Then I went to bed and tried to bore myself to sleep with one of Mum’s flowery romantic books.

  It took a while, of course. I wanted it too badly. And when at last I did sleep, and found myself on the crag, my worst fears were realised. The sun was high above the great expanse; many hours had passed since Max had walked the glade at dusk. With a heavy heart, I got to my feet and began to negotiate a way down to the forest floor. It took another wasted hour before I finally skidded to a stop at the bottom of the lowest scree. Then I set off slowly onwards, in what I hoped was the right direction.

  After a while, I came to a valley between two low hills, where towering trees stood set apart in rows. Their trunks were straight and bare right up to a great height, where their topmost branches spread out in soaring arches of foliage to meet each other and inter-link. The sky was blocked out, and the sun’s rays were turned a dim dark green as they penetrated the canopy and drifted down to the grassy floor. The height and space and darkness of this place gave it a solemn, stately feeling, as if I was standing in a living cathedral, among great pillars of carved stone.

  There were no ground plants here, and I could see a long distance in every direction, along each aisle of pillar-trunks until they vanished in the green murk. I walked on for a time, and then, as I passed one giant trunk, I saw a flash of movement, far off in the dim shadows of the wood. It was away to my left, where the trees merged with the dark – a pale shape that moved behind a tree. With pounding heart and staring eyes, I stood quite still among the silent columns. My pulse beat in my temple, three times, four times, five, six . . . and then the shape appeared again, further off among the trees.

  My feet made no noise as I crossed the green vault and ran along the next row of trunks, darting from the shadow of one tree to another. I drew closer to the moving shape; it was ahead of me and partly obscured by yet another aisle of trees and I could not be sure of its form. I darted silently across another open space to the next trunk and peered round.

  It was a human figure, walking slowly away from me, its face concealed. My heart swelled in sudden hope and I opened my mouth to call – but at the last moment something made me pause. What was it? The green shadows made it hard to make out any details of the figure’s clothes or features, but I felt it was too tall, too broad for the one I sought. The colour too was odd; it showed up as a drab paleness gleaming amongst the shades. It was a discoloured, dirty white all over, like faded paper or old chicken bones.

  There was something disconcerting too about the way the figure moved. It went with a slow, regular tread that never faltered, never altered. Its head was slightly bowed, as if heavy with thought or weariness. Occasionally, I thought to hear a slight rustle as it brushed past a trunk or fern. Otherwise, it was entirely silent.

  Consumed by doubt, I followed at some distance – not daring to get closer, yet reluctant to let the figure go. I did not want to approach it; I did not like its hanging hands and head. Its awkward strides reminded me of a sleepwalker’s. And though its body was constantly brushed with the subtly altering shades of the wood, its head seemed permanently in shadow.

  At last I decided to try and get a better look, to perhaps make out more clearly the walker’s face or clothes. I did not want to leave it before I had learned something more: it was after all the only living creature I had seen in all my weeks of travel. So I speeded up a little, attempting to get alongside, while still keeping a good distance between us.

  As quietly as possible I slipped from tree to tree, closer and closer to the figure. Now it was only ten paces away from me but, try as I might, I seemed unable to draw abreast with it, and in my frustration I paid no attention to the ground in front of me. I went faster still, and suddenly I put my foot down hard on a fallen branch, an old, dry limb that split in two with a crack like a gun going off.

  The figure stopped dead. I froze where I stood.

  Stiffly, it turned its head and looked at me.

  I had been right. It was not Max.

  It was a dead man’s face, blank-eyed, sharp-boned, paper-skinned – looking at me.

  I ran.

  Down the nearest nave of trees, under the silent arches, across the dark grass, I ran with my lips drawn back, too terrified to scream. I ran and ran, hearing no pursuit, nor anything but the frantic patter of my footsteps falling. I ran till my legs gave out and I collapsed on my hands and knees in the middle of the grass, with my chest shuddering for air. I crouched there, breathing like a frightened animal, my eyes wide and shining in the gloom.

  Then footsteps sounded right behind me, and I did not have the strength to rise.

  THIRTEEN

  I NEVER BROUGHT up Max again. Nor did Charlie, and though I thought she would take a while to forgive me, in fact she acted as if our little chat had never happened. Even more amazingly, I began to notice in the next few days that she was getting more involved with life – especially things that got her out of the house and kept her busy. Mum was delighted and, on the days when she wasn’t back at work, organised as many new trips and visits for Charlie as she could. I was pleased too, of course, but not as much as Mum. Something about my sister still bothered me.

  In some ways, she did seem better. She didn’t mope around so much and had far more energy. We went out together quite a bit at weekends and I thought Charlie had a new sense of purpose about her, which had to be healthier. Or so I tried to tell myself. But there was still a secretiveness about her; a nagging impression that she was hiding something under her calm exterior, nursing it, guarding it, letting no one else near.

  Her nightmares gave me a clue. They began to come with increasing frequency, and often I would hear her crying out in her sleep. In the mornings she regularly looked ill and drained, as if she had worn herself out with bad dreams.

  One morning I went into her room to try and calm her. She woke up and kicked me out, but not before I’d glimpsed a notebook on her bedside table, open with a pen resting in its fold. Later, when Charlie was in the bathroom, I put my head round the door, but the book was nowhere to be seen.

  The fact that she’d removed it intrigued me. What was she writing in it? Whether or not it was anything important – anything to do with her thoughts, anxieties, beliefs about Max, whatever – I thought it was worth seeing for myself. Later that morning, when Charlie went out to the corner shop, I seized my chance. I looked in her cabinet, behind it, under the bed, under the mattress and in half her drawers, being desperately careful not to leave any brotherly traces. But my luck was out. Either she’d taken the book with her or she’d hidden it somewhere I couldn’t fathom. For the moment, I had to give up.

  Th
at very afternoon, Charlie went out to the cinema with one of her mates from up the street. She hadn’t been back to school since July, and had lost touch with her old gang. I don’t think she’d seen that girl more than twice since the accident and they certainly didn’t have much small-talk when they met in the hall. But anyway, they headed off and, while she was out, Mum and I were paid a visit by Dr Tilbrook, Charlie’s shrink. It had all been arranged because Charlie was going out, and of course I hadn’t been told anything about it.

  ‘What’s he coming over for?’ I asked. I felt a bit defensive.

  ‘He wants to talk to us about Charlotte, of course,’ said Mum. She was flustered. She didn’t like the idea of him stirring things up, bringing bad news.

  ‘Doesn’t sound too good,’ I said. ‘Maybe he’s baffled.’

  That hit a sore point. ‘Oh shut up, James. He was very upbeat on the phone. He said he’s happy with the way things are going.’

  ‘Whatever you say, Mum.’

  ‘Well try to be positive for heaven’s sake. And sit up when he comes. He won’t want to talk to you if you’re slobbing about all over the furniture.’

  I wasn’t disposed to talk to Dr Tilbrook at all after this, but I’d already formed curiously mixed feelings about him. It’s difficult to explain. I mean, I was sure it was good that Charlie was seeing him, and yet . . .

  The thing is, whenever I saw her being driven off for an appointment, I always felt more anxiety for her than at any other time. For some reason, it was at those moments when all the feelings of annoyance I’d accumulated that day would peel off, and I would see Charlie quite simply as my little sister, alone and vulnerable. I don’t know why. So anyway, I awaited the psychiatrist’s arrival with an odd mixture of interest and reserve.

  Dr Tilbrook rolled up in a smart green car with a retractable roof. He was shown into the living room, with Mum seemingly on all sides of him at once. She ushered him into the best chair, the one opposite the sofa where I was nonchalantly lounging. He was a youngish bloke, tall and a bit too thin, with a mop of floppy hair and a lot of crow’s feet around his eyes. I thought he’d be pale and unhealthily bookish, but his face was surprisingly tanned.

  ‘Hi,’ Dr Tilbrook said.

  ‘Hello,’ said I.

  Mum made a pot of tea for herself and me. Dr Tilbrook took coffee. I was lounging so successfully I got a pain in my back, and had to sit up a little. At first, conversation was stilted. Mum and Dr Tilbrook made small talk, and I chipped in a few comments too, but we all seemed to sip our drinks at the same moment, and this led to awkward silences. Finally, Dr Tilbrook placed his cup (Mum’s best, naturally) decisively down upon his saucer and began his pitch.

  ‘I’m glad to come over to see you,’ he said. ‘As you know, I’ve been seeing Charlotte for six weeks now—’

  Charlotte, I thought. No one calls her that unless they’re Mum in a bad mood or someone who’s never met her. He hasn’t got very far.

  ‘– and it is always useful to touch base with patients’ families once in a while. So I wanted to talk to you about how Charlotte is getting on, and see if my interpretation agrees with yours.’

  Mum nodded eagerly and clinked her cup down on the saucer a little too loudly. I finished my tea, balanced the cup on the sofa armrest with infinite care and folded my arms. Dr Tilbrook coughed uncertainly. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘perhaps we should begin with your perceptions, Mrs Fletcher. If I could ask you to—’

  ‘Oh, of course.’ Mum was a little flustered, but she quickly composed herself and began carefully. ‘Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the last week or two, haven’t we, James? I think Charlotte has been much more content to take part in things. She’s not shutting herself off in her room, moithering from one end of the day to the next. She’s a lot less ratty too.’

  Dr Tilbrook was listening very closely, his head slightly tilted to one side. He didn’t move a muscle, so appreciative was he. When Mum finished, he took a reflective sip of coffee, and nodded.

  ‘I’m very pleased to hear that she is getting involved in the world again. But do you think, Mrs Fletcher, that Charlotte is inwardly coping? Have you had a chance to talk to her about her lost friend, or how she is feeling now?’

  Mum frowned a little and thought hard. I slumped lower in the sofa. ‘I’ve tried,’ she said, ‘but it never does any good. In fact it sets things off on the wrong footing whenever I do. I’m afraid my daughter resents me if I try to come too close. And I was advised, by the hospital, not to – you know – push her too much.’

  Dr Tilbrook nodded in an understanding way. I fidgeted. Mum seemed to have nothing more to say.

  ‘What about the nightmares, Mum?’ I said. She seemed to have forgotten them.

  ‘Oh. Yes. Well, James and I have heard Charlotte at night once or twice. She talks in her sleep, gets agitated—’

  ‘Talks, Mum? She shouts! Screams sometimes too. She’s having bad dreams, all the time.’

  ‘James’s bedroom is directly through the wall. He hears things more than I do.’

  Dr Tilbrook turned his attention to me. ‘Could you tell me anything more, James? These take place most nights, you say?’

  ‘Yes. But she won’t talk about them. I’m – we’re – a bit worried about it.’

  ‘What do you think, doctor?’ Mum said.

  ‘I think it’s important,’ I continued. ‘I really do. The dreams must be disturbing her, distracting her. But she never talks about them – she locks it all inside. I know she’s doing more stuff now, during the day, but she’s never fussed what. She’s just going through the motions, Mum. Her mind’s elsewhere.’

  I told them about the notebook I’d seen that morning. Mum frowned, but Dr Tilbrook just smiled a little. ‘There’s something about the night that’s holding her attention,’ I continued. ‘That’s what’s weird. I mean, if I was having bad dreams, I’d be terrified to go to bed. But Charlie can’t wait – she’s always the first one upstairs.’

  I ran out of steam. Dr Tilbrook levered himself back in his chair and flicked his hair into place with a jerk of his head. ‘Very interesting, James,’ he said. ‘Well, I can see that it is upsetting to witness these dreams, but the good news is that I don’t think you should worry. Let me tell you why.’

  His fingertips came together and formed a little steepled arch in his lap. ‘In my opinion,’ he said slowly, ‘Charlotte is making good progress. Why do I think that? Firstly, for the reasons Mrs Fletcher mentioned. She is getting on with life. When I talk to Charlotte, I find that she has not let grief overwhelm her. She is starting activities again such as the cycle rides she goes on with you, James. They mean a lot to her though she may not be able to thank you for them now. And think about all the swimming she does – that’s especially striking; think how healthy it is for her to want to return to the water. These are all good signs.

  ‘But of course the grief is still inside her. It would be strange if it were not. So how does she respond? Well, it would be easy enough for her to shut it out, let it fester deep inside, but no – Charlotte is meeting it head on. That is what the nightmares are, James – memories of the tragedy, which Charlotte must wrestle with if she is to work it out of the system.

  ‘It is very good news that she is writing about it. I gave her that notebook, James, and I’ve suggested she control her experiences by writing them down, so that she can talk to me about them when she wants to. It helps create objectivity, you see, if you try and record even upsetting things like nightmares. It is a vital part of the healing process. Every time she experiences a bad dream, and records it, she is working her way a little more into the understanding of loss. And gradually, as she learns to talk to me about what she sees and feels in those dreams, she will learn to control and come to terms with what has happened.’

  ‘I’m so glad,’ said Mum. ‘You see, James.’

  ‘What has she told you about the dreams so far?’ I said. This was all very well, but it didn’t
seem to explain her secrecy, her odd detachment during the day.

  ‘Not very much. I know they are very vivid, but I could not get her to give me any more details. They will be fragments, replays of the event, that sort of thing.’

  ‘So how do you know they’re helping? I saw her. She’s in real distress.’

  ‘Now, James—’

  ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Fletcher,’ Dr Tilbrook said soothingly, ‘James is quite right to be concerned. But although Charlotte hasn’t talked to me about them yet, I fully expect her to do so soon. From a few little hints she has given me, I think she is about ready to confide in someone.’

  ‘I think we should look for her record,’ I said. ‘She’s hidden it. I couldn’t find it.’

  ‘Don’t hunt for it,’ Dr Tilbrook said. ‘Don’t break her trust. She’ll show it to someone when she’s ready.’ By his voice, I knew someone meant him. ‘She’s working her way to a solution. We’ve just got to be patient. Thank you, Mrs Fletcher, another half cup would be lovely.’

  I sloped off then, leaving them to chat about nothing. Mum had heard what she wanted to hear. I had heard nothing to reassure me. I went up to my room, passing Charlie’s door as I went. It was half-open, with an air of invitation and defiance. I looked at my watch. Charlie might be back in the next hour or so. That didn’t give enough time for a thorough going over. Don’t break her trust, Dr Tilbrook had said. Well, he and Mum might be happy to let Charlie struggle along unaided, but I wasn’t. It seemed to me that a bit of brotherly treachery was exactly what was required.

  FOURTEEN

  ‘MAX . . . HELP ME.’

  My head was in my hands, my hair spilling over my face. I was shivering with fear, sick with it. My heart lurched inside me as I waited for the rustle of dry fabric, the bony touch. Without thinking, I called his name.

  ‘Max . . .’

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  From behind me, a voice, quiet, enquiring. I raised my head a little and peered out through the cascade of hair. Across the grass, I could see the next row of trees in the distance. They were a long way off – there was no point in running.

 
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