The leap, p.9
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       The Leap, p.9
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  EIGHTEEN

  Kit told me to look for Max in his old haunts, places he used to know and love. I don’t really understand how, but Max is still close to these places, even though he is in the forest too. If I go there I might find myself closer to him, or another way to get through.

  Possible places

  The steelworks

  Max’s house

  The canal

  There are more, but it’s so hard to remember. Anyway, that’s enough for starters.

  IT WAS THE obvious place to try. Max’s house, I mean. I hadn’t been back there, even to his street, since the morning of the mill pool. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere near it because I was fearful of how heavy his absence would feel there. I thought it would be the steelworks only worse. But now, all of a sudden, that made it a place of opportunity, not loss. So I cycled over without hesitation, hid my bike in the alley and stepped over to his back gate.

  Max’s mum and dad both work, so I knew the place would be empty. The gate was locked, but Max had taught me how to open it by standing on a brick and craning my arm over the top. It was stiff but I worked it loose. I pushed the gate open, just far enough to slip inside, and shut it again.

  It was the same old yard, with all the piles of bricks and breezeblocks Max’s dad had bought years ago for the extension to the kitchen he never built. But the grass had grown up long around them and the flowerbed, which Max’s mum had once kept moderately sane, was choked with weeds, unkempt, unloved. And all Max’s rubbish – the rusty swing, the collection of soft footballs, the various bats and guns and broken games that used to litter the place – all that old clutter had been removed.

  That would have bothered me before, but now I was concentrating on my search. I had half a mind to try the back door and see if they’d left it unlocked. Maybe I could creep up to his room, look for him there. But then Max had never been too keen on staying indoors. This yard was our old HQ, where we used to plan things. It was best I stay here.

  But what should I actually do? Now that I thought about it, Kit had given me no specific instructions. There was no point looking for Max in the ordinary way. Different measures were called for. I sat on the breezeblocks and closed my eyes, trying to be receptive, calling to him in my head. I tried to remember what we had done here, the spy games, the assault course, the raids on the opposite yard . . . Quite a bit came back. It was fun. Max would enjoy remembering it too if he was nearby. What about the water fights and the time we tried to climb on to the kitchen roof to retrieve a tennis ball? Come on, Max? Can you hear it? Are you near?

  I opened my eyes suddenly, aware of a little sound up at the house. I was just in time to see a pale face pressing against the net curtains before it moved back and disappeared. Max’s mum. A shock ran through me, half fear, half annoyance. She should have been at work, not loitering at home. Now she’d ruin everything. She’d be coming down to interrogate me: What was I doing? Why was I here when Max had gone?

  I didn’t want any of that, so I slipped out through the gate again, shut it, ran down to my bike and was off up the alley before she could have opened her back door. Round the corner I stopped for a rest. Now what? I couldn’t go back, for a bit at any rate. I didn’t want to try anywhere else either. So I drifted along on aimlessly for a while, up this road and down that, and suddenly found myself, almost by accident, round the front of Max’s house. I stopped pedalling and stood there, one foot on the pavement, looking up at Max’s bedroom. Something was wrong with it – and I couldn’t tell what it was at first. Then I realised that his old curtains, the ones with the rockets, had been taken down. That made me feel bad. What would Max be thinking? What else might they have done to his room? Were they trying to forget him? I craned my head to try to see in, look at the wallpaper, get a view of his old cupboard. Where was that stack of games? It looked like they were gone too.

  Then, like a bad dream, that same pale face appeared from nowhere at the window, looking down at me. She was there again! Guarding the place, preventing my access! I could see her mouthing something. A fist banged against the glass. I looked away in disgust. Just ignore her. I could do nothing for the moment so I cycled off up the street.

  I spent most of the rest of the day down by the canal in the cold, eating crisps and reading comics from the newsagents. I was in a bad mood, and didn’t want to go home. It infuriated me that Max’s own parents were frustrating my attempts to find him. There was almost no chance that Max would be drawn back to his house if they were ridding themselves of all his things, all his own memories. It was hopeless. Evening drew in and I was still there, hunched on a wall overlooking the towpath.

  At last I got cold and stiff and forced myself to move. I decided to head home though, I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the forest now that I was lost. Something made me take the long route back, past Max’s house. I kept away from the front and wheeled the bike back up the alley to a patch of shadow under the wall opposite the gate. I stood there looking at the house. It was dark except for a light on in the kitchen and one in the upstairs toilet window.

  I remembered that window. It overlooked the roof of the kitchen. It was possible, if you were small and sinewy, to climb on to the inside window ledge, carefully avoiding the bottles of shampoo and deodorant stacked there, and then squeeze yourself headfirst through the window. Then, if you wriggled forwards like a snake and carefully gripped the outer ledge in both hands, you could twist your feet out and down on to the flat kitchen roof. Max and I both did this several times when his mum was out. Then came the time when Max got too fat and got stuck halfway, with his stomach protruding from one side of the window and his bum from the other. And like a fool I had gone first, so I was trapped on the rooftop together with a packet of biscuits we’d filched from his mum’s pantry. And no matter how hard I pushed or pulled, I couldn’t shift him one inch, and we’d had to wait until his mum got home and came into the loo and got the shock of her life, seeing her son’s fat bum hanging through the window. She’d used butter to get him out, and he was sore round his sides for days.

  And then, suddenly, as I was thinking of this, of all the embarrassment I’d felt, and how funny we’d both found it afterwards, I found myself standing among trees in a part of the forest I didn’t know, leaning against a trunk and laughing. There was a cool breeze against my forehead. The trees were smaller here, more like ones in an English wood, and I could hear animals moving among the bushes around me.

  Then I became aware of a particular noise, a gentle, hesitant rustling, very slow and deliberate; the sound of bark being touched by a moving hand. And I knew that it came from the other side of the very tree against which I was leaning. I kept quite still, doing my best to think of that ridiculous scene: the window, Max’s legs kicking behind the glass, the sound of shampoo bottles careering into the bath. And the dry rustling, rasping sound continued round the side of the tree, closer and closer, until I even thought to hear the crush of grass under someone’s foot.

  Closer, closer. The other sounds in the forest had died away. The trailing hand must be very near. Perhaps, out of the side of my eye, if I just turned . . .

  ‘You!’ Out of the forest, between the trees ahead of me, a dark lumbering form came running, arms raised, breaking the branches, tearing the trees in two, shredding the whole forest into strips which dissolved before me, to leave me staring once again with newly opened eyes at the darkening house, and Max’s dad hurtling out of his gate right for me.

  In a blind panic I grabbed my handlebars, fell on to the saddle and lurched forwards, feet flailing for the pedals. Max’s dad reached out, my foot made contact with a pedal and with a single desperate push I swerved away to the side of his half-hearted clasp, almost up against the brick wall. I fended this off, scraping my elbow in the process, and then I was off, head down and sprinting along the dark alley. As I went, I heard him calling after me.

  ‘I’ve spoken to your mother! She’ll be waitin
g for you when you get home! And don’t think you’ll come back here! I’ll get you if you do!’

  I hardly heard him. I was too furious with my disappointment and my fresh new loss.

  NINETEEN

  I haven’t written much for a few days. It’s all been too depressing. I’m lost in the wood, wandering, no longer on the trail. I see birds, and some animals at a distance, but no people. The animals are deer, I think, though it’s hard to be sure. Once, I thought I heard a cry somewhere far off, or maybe it was a horn. I don’t know. I haven’t gone back to Max’s house and nowhere else has helped yet. The canal and steelworks gave me nothing. I don’t think I’m in the right mood. Mum and James are acting oddly. Mum’s not going out very much and she’s made me stay in to watch videos. Why can’t they just leave me alone? I’m feeling very low. There’s no point even writing this, except I’m so bored.

  TRY AS I might to put a good spin on it, I knew I had messed it up down at Max’s. I should have gone over when his mum and dad were asleep. And I knew now I’d have no luck if I went back. Max wouldn’t be there any more.

  I was quite down and my journey through the forest made me worse. I was getting nowhere, the dreams dragged on and on and sometimes I didn’t even bother to walk, I was so dispirited. I would sit glumly under a tree watching the birds. I had come to a part of the wood where the trees were smaller, more personal and scrubby, and there was activity all around. I started seeing squirrels in the branches above and coloured birds with long feathered tails. They all frisked about in quite a lively way, but I was so low, I hardly cared.

  Then one day I had my big chance. I had summoned up the energy to walk and was swiping irritably with a stick at any ferns I passed. All of a sudden, I was disturbed by the sound of loud crashing from the forest on my right. I was circling the margin of a great steep hill and the noise was coming from the thick brushwood that clogged the area. It drew nearer and nearer, and I fell back a little and held my stick out unconvincingly in front of me.

  The crashing reached a crescendo – then out on to the path spilled Kit, covered in prickles and burrs and all out of breath. As soon as I recovered from my shock, I greeted him warmly.

  ‘Very glad I found you,’ he said at last as his gasping drew more measured. ‘Saw you from the top of the hill and came running. Something you’ll be interested in.’

  It took another few minutes for him to get his breath back fully, while I was forced to wait, beside myself with impatience. Finally, he sat himself on the bank beneath the thicket, brushed a few prominent twigs from the front of his jacket and took a good look at me from under a lowered brow.

  ‘Pardon me for saying so,’ he said, ‘but you don’t seem to be in the best of shape. Not as I remembered you, anyway. Not the energy or determination you once had . . .’

  ‘Nor the direction,’ I said. ‘I’m lost. I’ve been trying to follow your advice but I’ve had no luck so far.’ I told him my account, and he shook his head ruefully.

  ‘You were unlucky,’ he said. ‘It was the right thing to do. But listen, you may have no need of that advice any more. I have news.’

  He paused a little, milking my growing excitement. ‘On the brow of this very hill I have found something which may be of use.’

  ‘What have you found?’

  ‘A certain tree.’ Here he picked a large thorn from the belly of his waistcoat with finger and thumb.

  ‘Go on! What, is it tall – a lookout place?’

  ‘No.’ He suddenly signalled me to him, taking a swift, furtive look left and right as if someone might be near. I drew close.

  ‘This tree,’ he said, ‘is very rare. It is in most respects unremarkable. Not tall nor great of girth. Its leaves are a drab puce-green.

  ‘However, this tree bears fruit, and this is where its one unusual quality resides. These fruits are unattractive. They are small and wizened and their skin bears a passing resemblance to that of a wrinkly old crone. However, they are very good to eat – very sweet they are, very sweet indeed.’ Here he licked his lips and smiled.

  ‘But even that is not the central fact about these fruit,’ he continued. ‘It is not the taste of them – but what the taste can do! Just one mouthful of this fruit and your greatest desire will be your command.’

  I frowned. ‘They grant wishes?’

  ‘Not wishes. Desire. The most heart-felt thing you crave, that you lust for with every ounce of your being. This is not some fairytale lamp to rub to give you tin-pot wealth or fleeting fame. You do not have to speak your wish or even think it. It comes to you, unasked for, from deep inside. It is there, in the fruit, waiting for you if you want to taste it. Only, you must be confident of what you desire, for it obeys even those cravings you have not yet acknowledged to yourself, ones that you perhaps ignore or even fear. It might catch you by surprise.’

  ‘I know very well what my one desire is,’ I said. ‘That is why I am here.’

  ‘Exactly. This could be a short cut to your friend. How it will work, I don’t know; it can never be predicted. But if you do want to try, I will lead you to the tree.’

  We began the climb through the thicket of gorse and scrub, which, though seemingly impenetrable from the path, soon opened out a little to allow us fair headway. Even so, I was scratched all over through my clothes by the treacherous thorns and spikes that seemed to protrude at every level. Kit led the way, appearing to recall perfectly each twist and turn of the route, though the hill was a monotonous waste of low-lying bushes in every direction.

  After a while, we broke out above the level of the trees around us and once again I received a high view of the endless wood. The sky was darkening towards evening, and the light was noticeably poor. My friend looked about him and then pointed.

  ‘There,’ he said.

  I followed his gaze. A little way off, rising slightly above the brown-green scrub, was a single solitary tree, warped and stunted by the winds of years. It was a sorry sight, with too few twisted branches, each one sporadically spotted with leaves. Here and there among them were tiny flecks of bright green.

  We approached. So scrawny was the tree that its topmost branches were only a little higher than my friend’s head, and its knotted trunk would have been thin enough for me to ring it with both hands.

  ‘Here it is then,’ Kit said. ‘All you need to do is eat one single fruit.’

  He indicated a particularly contorted fruit hanging low, just at eye level. It was near enough for me to reach out and pluck it. The skin was a rich, mottled green, flushed with colour; it was a very ripe fruit. It seemed to be hanging on to the branch by the weakest of threads.

  ‘Tell me again,’ I said, ‘about how it works. What does it do?’ I realised suddenly that I did not understand at all.

  Kit’s head leaned forward a little in a very earnest manner. ‘All I can tell you is that it will make things a lot easier for you. Think about what we have talked about, think about the difficulty of your quest. You are having to conduct two searches at once, in two different worlds. And though you are determined and skilful, it is tiring you. You are already weary. Who knows if you will find your friend before he reaches the Fair? Nothing is certain. You are badly in need of aid. This fruit may be that help.’

  ‘All very well,’ I said, ‘but I still do not really understand this fruit. You say it grants desire. Tell me, how do you know such things?’

  He straightened suddenly to his full height, and smiled broadly. I took a step back – I had forgotten just how tall he was. ‘Simple,’ he said, ‘I know because I have tasted the fruit myself.’

  There was a far-off light in his eye; for a moment he did not see me; he was gazing inward at a remembered pleasure.

  ‘Your desire was granted?’

  ‘Oh yes.’ What it was he did not tell me and I did not like to ask. But I could see how powerfully the memory affected him. At length he roused himself from his reverie and turned to me again.

  ‘So, Charlie,’ he said.
‘Taste it. You have nothing to lose.’ He reached out and plucked the nearest fruit. The broken stem wept a single tear of sap and was still. A sweet fragrance, heady as the scents of early summer, drifted in the air as he handed me the fruit in silence. I held it in my hand. Ugly though it was with its soft, over-ripe and blotchy skin, I thought it the most delicious-looking food I had ever seen. Its perfume made my head reel with pleasure.

  ‘Eat,’ he said. ‘You will go to join Max.’

  The scent was all around me, tingling against my skin. I felt a sudden upsurge of delight and eagerness. The pressure of my love for Max crushed me, and I suddenly felt that he was very near. I could scarcely breathe with the anticipation. I could not take my eyes away from the hideous, delightful fruit in my hand.

  One bite was all that was needed. Max was just moments away.

  As I drew the fruit to my lips, I could see my friend smiling.

  TWENTY

  I DON’T KNOW when I actually became aware of the noise coming from Charlie’s room. I had drifted out of sleep and had lain half-conscious in the warm darkness for many minutes before my brain logged in to the soft, slow thudding noise sounding through the wall. Reluctantly, I opened an eye. The bedside clock showed 2.13; the room was pitch black, and thud, thud, thud went the muffled rhythm through the wall.

  This noise unnerved me. Normally it takes ages for me to wake up properly, but now I found myself sitting up rapidly and cocking my head to listen. Thud, thud, thud. So soft was it that I could barely catch it through the natural hissing of my ears.

  I got up and padded out. Down the landing in two steps to Charlie’s door. It was ajar. I looked in. The orange light from the alley flooded the room, giving it an unhealthy radiance. I saw at once that Charlie was asleep. She lay on her back with the sheets thrown off, and the orange glow reflecting with a stippled sheen off her mangy old pyjamas. Both her hands were clenched into fists. Her right arm was twisted up against her chest, her fingers wrenching at her pyjama top. The left arm was outstretched, so that the fist brushed up against her bedside cabinet. It was this fist which made the noise as, every few seconds, when Charlie gave a little shudder or jerk, it banged softly against the wood. Then I noticed her feet too. The toes were clenched.

 
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