The leap, p.8
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       The Leap, p.8
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  ‘It sounds it,’ I said. His voice flooded me with sensations. My head was awhirl with images, with imagined scents and sounds. For a moment, all thought of Max went quite out of my head. Then he returned with a flurry of guilt and I tried to get myself back on track.

  ‘Is Max going there, to the Great Fair?’ I asked. I hoped so.

  ‘Certainly. All those who have come into this world like Max through real and proper entrances –’ (In other words not through dreams like me.) ‘– will now be making their way to the site of the Fair. From all around it they congregate. If you could look down on the forest like a bird from high above, you would see hundreds of figures like Max all moving towards the centre, as if they were on invisible spokes of a wheel. They are all answering the call that goes out, summoning them to the Fair.’

  ‘What call is this?’ I hadn’t heard anything.

  ‘You haven’t heard it because you are not truly of this country. You are only half here, after all. The summons is picked up by us all living here, but it holds a particular compulsion for wanderers like Max.’

  Far, far above, a flock of birds, maybe twenty or thirty strong, drifted like a white wisp of twisting paper against the vaulted ceiling of the canopy. ‘The centrepiece of the Fair,’ my friend continued, ‘is the great Dance, when all newcomers to our country are celebrated and welcomed. It takes place on the last night of the revels. Max will be travelling as fast as he is able to take his appointed place. By joining the Dance, he will become one of us, a true inhabitant of this country.’

  ‘And if he doesn’t?’

  ‘He will have to wander anew until the next Dance takes place, neither eating nor sleeping, nor laying down to rest. Truly, he will be hurrying there at the best speed he can muster.’

  ‘Perhaps I can meet him at the Fair.’

  ‘Perhaps, but I should warn you of one more thing. Once he has joined the Dance, Max will truly be of this country. He will forget you and his past life. Then he will not know you if he meets you among the stalls and side-shows of the Fair.’

  At this, a great grief welled up inside me. ‘How then can I catch him?’ I said. ‘It is hopeless.’

  ‘Perhaps, perhaps not. There are ways. I will tell you when we meet next.’

  ‘Meet next? Tell me now! I can’t waste time.’

  ‘You are waking. Can you not feel it?’

  And I did feel it, deep down inside me. A shifting of my body, a lightening of limb, a sudden subtle sense of dislocation, so that the very movements I was making – the sharp turns of my head, the urgent gesticulations – seemed unconnected with my brain. Cause and effect were breaking apart. I tried to get up from where I sat but my body no longer obeyed me. I began to lift out away from myself and the scenery of the great forest flickered and grew dimmer as if lit by a guttering candle.

  All of a sudden I left that place. My friend grew faint and his shape vanished, although even as I felt my sheets and pillow grow hard and definite against my body, I heard his voice ring out a final time.

  ‘Do not worry. I shall be waiting,’ it said.

  SIXTEEN

  James suspects something, I know he does. He was hanging around me all day, trying to get me to do things with him. He was watching me all the time, driving me mad. When I told him to get lost he got quite funny with me and refused to go, and in the end I had to shout for Mum to come up and order him out of my room. Even then he wouldn’t leave off – he’s just knocked on the door again, asking me to watch a film with him downstairs. I didn’t bothering answering of course. I have to sleep.

  I WAS TRYING to keep myself occupied by writing, while waiting for drowsiness to kick in. I didn’t really need to, of course: I now remembered without effort everything that happened to me in the forest. Kit’s every word rang in my head, clear as clear. The same wasn’t true for the tedious day at home. I could hardly concentrate on it and forgot what people told me as soon as they said it. It just wasn’t important.

  As he promised, my new friend was still there when I returned to the cathedral of trees. He was sitting motionless beneath the mottled shadow of one great tree-pillar, head bowed slightly, eyes two glinting specks in the dimness of the forest.

  ‘Time has passed,’ he said to me in greeting. ‘A whole day and more.’

  ‘I know. It took me ages to get to sleep.’

  ‘More time is lost.’ He didn’t need to say this. I had been worrying about it all day. I almost thought he was rubbing it in but his voice had a sad and heavy tone.

  ‘I know. So tell me – I mean, you said you were going to tell me another way to catch up with Max, before he gets to the Fair.’ I couldn’t help sounding a bit wheedling. More than at any time, I felt helpless in this wood, in the race with Max.

  ‘Did I? Well, yes, there are ways. But they aren’t easy. Perhaps—’

  ‘I’ll try them. Whatever they are. Please, tell me.’

  ‘Let me ask you a question first. How do you spend your time when you are not here?’

  ‘During the day? Don’t know, really. I forget. Mooch around a lot. Go out. I don’t see friends much any more. Maybe my brother, sometimes, but he’s a drag.’

  ‘And how do you feel about this time? Do you enjoy it?’

  ‘What do you mean, “enjoy it”? You’re getting to sound like Tilbrook. No, I don’t, not at all. Because—’

  ‘Yes – because what?’ He leaned forward eagerly, as if confident of my answer.

  ‘Because I’m not here of course, and because Max—’

  ‘– is getting further away all the time you sit there, doing nothing, listening to fools prattle around you without understanding the urgency you feel. Yes, I know what you’re going through, my dear, and it isn’t pleasant at all. Isolation stings, doesn’t it? But don’t worry. You don’t have to let them grind you down. The way forward is right under your nose, if only you can see it. But that involves getting off your backside and looking, during the day.’

  He paused for breath, and I paused to absorb the flurry of words that had bombarded me. I hadn’t heard him so impassioned before and all his shots rang true.

  ‘Go on,’ I said at last.

  ‘I will make myself clear.’ He flexed his fingers a little and rolled his shoulders as if preparing for great physical exercise. Then, with a bound, he leapt to his feet, and began to pace the turf in front of me, six steps to the left, then to the right, wheeling round tightly in between.

  ‘Charlie, you will never catch up with your friend here,’ he began. ‘I explained that yesterday. You are not fully in this country and in your absences Max moves on. What you need are ways to speed up your movement through the forest, to jump forward if you like along Max’s trail.’

  He made another turn and continued. ‘The other danger you have is that the further behind Max you are, the less easy it is to follow him. The trail goes cold. In which direction do you think he is?’

  I opened my mouth to speak, and found, to my horror, that I could not answer. All this time I had been cast-iron sure of my direction, straight and confident as an arrow. And suddenly, I no longer knew. Panic rose in my gullet and I began to sweat, while all about me the forest seemed to close in, silent, watchful, endless.

  The other waited for a moment, then seeing that my answer would not come, resumed his pacing. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘it becomes more difficult. Nor would it help to make straight for the Fair. Its location is very tricky to find; often it seems to shift, even during the duration of the Fair itself. I do not know where it will be this year, and you will certainly not find out, unless you are drawn there by the scent of your good friend Max.’

  I said nothing. My position seemed worse with every sentence he uttered.

  ‘But what you must realise,’ he went on in a slightly lighter tone, ‘is that there are more ways into this country than the one Max found, more ways in than just through dreams. Also, you must understand that while Max is walking through the forest, heading for the Fair, h
e is still close, on one level, to his old country, to the places he once knew.’

  ‘What, do you mean his old home?’ I asked. ‘Or the places we used to go? I’ve not felt him there.’ I was thinking of the steel factory’s emptiness, its desolation.

  ‘You haven’t looked hard enough. You haven’t listened out for him, for the echo of the footsteps or the sound of his voice. I’m not saying it’s easy work, far from it. Max is distant; he’s in the forest, walking. But he is also close to these sites that he once loved, and if you look hard enough, you may find ways through, shortcuts if you like, that will leap you on through the forest, closer to him. Think about your journey so far. Your going is slow now. Has it always been so?’

  I thought back, and almost as if it was in a dream of another life I recalled the first faltering steps on the beach, then on the dune, then the desert, leaps onwards each one with gaps between them. ‘No,’ I said slowly. ‘To start with, I travelled fast. Before the desert, I was a little further in each time.’

  ‘And tell me, was there anywhere you visited, at that time, that Max and you both knew?’

  ‘Only the – only the mill pool, itself. I visited that again, right at the start.’

  ‘Exactly. You were close to Max then, very close, and closing with each dream. Since then, you’ve lost the trail during the daytime and that has meant you’ve lagged behind at night.’ He stopped pacing suddenly and looked me hard in the eye.

  ‘You need to search by day,’ he said. ‘Search for places where Max is close.’

  ‘But where?’ I was flummoxed by this new suggestion. I had written Max out of my daytime life so entirely in the last few weeks that I could hardly begin to think.

  ‘I can’t tell you. You know him better than anyone, don’t you? That’s what you told me. So you must remember the places where Max was happiest, where he was most—’ He broke off, turned to face the vastness of the forest. ‘You must think hard. It’s up to you.’

  It was hard to think, standing there in the forest, with the greenness muffling the drab memories of my home and town. My friend seemed to realise this. He smiled and turned to me from his contemplation of the cavernous spaces.

  ‘Don’t worry now. It may be easier when you are there.’

  ‘OK.’ I shrugged. ‘But I don’t understand what this will achieve. If I go somewhere that Max is . . . close to. What then?’

  ‘It will draw you closer to him here in the forest. Your experiences will change, will quicken. And if you’re lucky, you will find yourself catching him well before the Dance occurs. Perhaps, you will even find another entrance . . . for yourself.’

  He finished, but I was hardly listening any more. One thought was resounding through my head. Find yourself catching him. Yes, and then . . . And then what? What happens when I do? I simply had no idea. But remembering his silhouette in the distant glade, I felt it would at least be enough to touch him and make him turn to me.

  All of a sudden, I noticed that the light in the forest was changing swiftly, growing perceptibly darker. There were distant flutterings and calls from the lower branches of the great trees and the air became close and warm. The upper reaches of the distant canopy turned from emerald to sullen olive-green and the rows of trees stretching away on all sides began to shorten as the darkness closed in.

  ‘A storm is coming,’ Kit said. He loosened his collar. I felt damp under the arms. A bird flew low across the space in front of us, silently and fast, making for hidden shelter.

  ‘I have to go,’ Kit said. ‘I have stayed here too long, talking with you.’

  ‘You’re going?’ For some reason the thought of his absence shocked me. The forest pressed in all around. Even in the growing warmth, my hands were cold.

  ‘I must. Perhaps we will meet again. I will keep my eyes open – for your friend, for you, and for anything else that might help you.’

  He shook my hand. I was too bemused to speak. Then he turned and was striding off noiselessly through the dark grass, with the olive shadows patterning his thin high shoulders and his long hair. In a few moments, he was a dull smudge in the encroaching dark, silhouetted between the pillars of two trees. Then he was gone.

  I was alone in the forest and I did not know which way to go. All at once I heard a roaring in the heavens as unseen rain began to crash against the topmost leaves of the canopy far overhead. But I had stood there for many heartbeats shadowed in the warm darkness of the wood before the first raindrop struck the grass beside my feet.

  SEVENTEEN

  WHEN IT HAPPENED, I was under Charlie’s bed, trying not to sneeze. I had a theory that she might have hidden the notebook somewhere in the mess of girls’ magazines strewn in the grimy underworld beneath her bed. I knew my way around there a bit – some of those mags had girls’ problem pages that repaid a bit of reading – but I hadn’t bargained on all the boxes of old toys and teds and games I’d given her, and above all all that dust. So I was rooting about, snuffling like a pig, when the doorbell went and I was still only halfway out when Mum opened the door and the trouble began.

  First of all, I just heard an alien voice, a man’s, raised in anger. For half a second I thought it might be Dad, but even as I thought it, I knew I didn’t recognise the voice. Or did I? Maybe it did ring a bell. I wriggled my way out from under the bed and rested a moment with my head on the floor, listening. Mum was trying to say something, raising her voice too, but she kept being shouted down. I still couldn’t hear properly, so I got up, kicked an incriminating doll’s box back out of view and crept on to the landing.

  The man’s voice came echoing up the stairwell. Mum had evidently failed to get him into the lounge which was always her first objective with any visitor.

  ‘Do you think we have to put up with that?’ he shouted. ‘Do you? It’s bad enough that we have to be in the same town as you without her come lurking round our house! What does she want? What can she want?’

  ‘Really, I’m sure she can’t have intended –’ Mum’s voice was taut with agitation. She was very upset. I started for the stairs.

  ‘Can’t she? With me at work for the first time today – and to come back finding my wife weeping in the hall!’

  I froze on the second step down. All of a sudden, I knew who he was, this man whose voice had rung a bell. I knew where I’d heard it before, just a few weeks earlier, giving the reading in a silent church with that same voice breaking as he fluffed his lines. That was it. That was when I’d seen him. At his son’s funeral.

  You know sometimes you realise something so nasty or awful is happening that the sweat breaks out on your hands and your back and neck go cold all at once? This was exactly what happened to me here and I was rigid. I didn’t know what to do. Like a coward I waited in the shadow of the stairs, waiting while the terrible voice went on, quieter now.

  ‘I’m relying on you to find out what she wants. It’s your responsibility. I’m not blaming the poor girl, but . . . you’d think we’d just be allowed to get on with our lives. My poor wife . . . That’s all. Just tell her to leave us alone!’

  The door was slowly closed. I was frozen on the stairs. I heard Mum go back into the lounge. I followed her. She was sitting on the arm of one chair, holding her head in her hands, and I went over and put my arm round her.

  ‘It’s all right, Mum,’ I said. ‘It’s all right.’

  She gazed at the wall. Her face looked creased and old. ‘I don’t think it is, Jamie,’ she said.

  ‘What was she doing?’ I asked quietly.

  ‘That poor woman. Charlie was round their house. She was seen from the upstairs window. She was down there, in the alley behind, creeping in the yard. Sitting there, walking around. That poor woman. She went down to talk to her and she was gone. But later she saw her again, at the front, by the gate. Not doing anything. Just standing there, she said, as if she were waiting. Can you imagine, Jamie? What can they think of us, to let her do a thing like that?’

  I hugged Mum tight
. It was the first time I’d done that since Charlie had come back from hospital. She needed that hug badly and I needed it too.

  ‘Don’t worry, Mum,’ I said. ‘I’m sure there’s a simple explanation. She’s working things out for herself. We’ll have a word with her when she comes home.’ I sounded confident, but even as I said it, I knew that I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do or say.

  I had been right to be sceptical of Dr Tilbrook’s glib diagnosis. Far from confiding in him, Charlie was more wrapped up in herself than ever. She was dozy and vague, like she was drugged or something. It was hard to get any sense out of her.

  Heavily I climbed the stairs again. That bloody notebook. More than ever I felt it was vital to find out what it said. Perhaps it gave some clue to what she thought she was doing. But for that I had to find the thing – and she’d hidden it too well. She’d not had it when she’d cycled off. It was in that bedroom for sure. But where?

 
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