Time quake, p.8
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       TIME QUAKE, p.8

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘Is he a friend of yours?’

  Anjali nearly jumped out of her skin and was already halfway to the door before the nurse called out: ‘Don’t go! This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you . . .’

  Anjali stopped in her tracks and turned around to face the nurse.

  ‘I’ll take a bet that your name is Anjali.’

  Anjali’s large, dark eyes took on the look of a cat who has seen a sudden movement in the long grass. She stared at the nurse, all attention. With her cropped, salt and pepper hair and her knowing face, the woman reminded her of the patient schoolteacher who’d eventually taught her to read. Anjali stayed hovering by the door but decided not to run – yet.

  ‘Believe me, I’m happy you’ve come! It’s been breaking my heart to think there’s not a soul in the world who cares whether he lives or dies.’

  ‘The law have been here—’

  ‘The police haven’t been round for a couple of days now. The boy’s injuries are consistent with a fall. Only the boy knows if he was pushed or if he fell – and he’s keeping that to himself at the moment . . . Of course they’ve asked us to keep them informed about his progress. That and if any visitors turn up . . .’

  Anjali looked alarmed.

  ‘But it’s the boy I’m concerned about.’

  ‘Is he gonna be all right?’

  ‘Do you want me to see if there’s a doctor on duty who can talk to you?’

  ‘No! Can’t you tell me?’

  The nurse hesitated. ‘Well, he’s had a blood clot removed from his brain . . .’

  Anjali’s head dropped forward onto her chest. The nurse moved closer to her and put an arm around her shoulder.

  ‘But there were no complications and, as you can see, he’s already been transferred out of the High Dependency Unit . . .’

  ‘He looks so white . . .’

  ‘Give him time – he’s doing fine . . .’

  Anjali stared at Tom’s bandaged head for a while and then asked: ‘Did anyone identify him?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘So they don’t know where he lives?’

  ‘No. Do you?’

  ‘No.’

  There was a pause while the nurse and the girl weighed each other up.

  ‘Was it you that hurt him?’

  Anjali shook her head vigorously. ‘He was trying to save me.’

  ‘Well I’m glad he succeeded – though it was at a price . . .’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘Are you Anjali?’

  The girl nodded.

  ‘I heard him say your name yesterday while I was giving him a wash. Names are powerful things. You must be important to him. It’d be good to know his name. It’d be a start.’

  ‘Tom. His name’s Tom.’

  The nurse broke into a huge smile, walked over to the bed and sat on the starched white sheets. She stroked the boy’s smooth cheek and patted his hand affectionately. An intravenous drip was taped to his wrist.

  ‘At last!’ she whispered. ‘Now we can introduce ourselves properly. I’m pleased to meet you, Tom. My name is Brenda. When you wake up you’ll find you’ve got a visitor! And a pretty one at that.’

  The nurse motioned for Anjali to come over. Anjali knelt on the floor so that her face was close to Tom’s ear. ‘Can he hear?’

  ‘It’s difficult to say. He’s been drifting in and out for a while . . .’

  ‘It’s me, Tom. It’s Anjali.’

  Tom’s left eyelid flickered and the nurse and Anjali exchanged hopeful glances. They waited in high anticipation for several minutes, staring at Tom’s waxen face with its dark lashes and small, pointed nose and pale lips, but he remained motionless.

  ‘Does he have any family?’

  Anjali shook her head. ‘He’s an orphan. And the guy who was looking after him has—’ She paused to sigh deeply. ‘He’s gone away.’

  ‘Will he be back?’

  ‘I doubt it.’

  ‘So you’re all he’s got?’

  Anjali looked pained. ‘We’re friends. That’s all.’

  The nurse nodded. ‘I see.’

  The following night the nurse arranged to be there when Anjali arrived. The nurse and the girl sat together on grey, hospital chairs, drinking mugs of hot chocolate that the nurse had made to help them through their evening vigil.

  ‘I’ve brought something for him.’

  The nurse watched as Anjali picked up her rucksack and undid the buckles. Anjali carefully removed a chocolate box fastened with two green elastic bands. Several small holes had been poked into the lid and sawdust escaped from the cracks. The nurse gripped the side of her chair as she heard a small but distinct scratching sound coming from within the box.

  ‘I’ve been looking after his mouse. It gives me the creeps. I don’t mind hamsters but mice stink.’ Anjali turned to Tom. ‘I wish you’d hurry up and get better so I don’t have to look after your stinky little friend no more.’

  ‘Please don’t tell me that’s his mouse!’

  Anjali grinned. ‘Tom always has it with him – in his pocket, climbing all over him. I reckon he prefers his mouse to people.’

  The nurse put her hand to her mouth as she watched Anjali ping off the bands and raise the lid of the box a crack and then, with a shiver of distaste, pull out a wriggling white creature by the tip of its tail.

  ‘Look who I’ve brought to see you,’ said Anjali.

  The mouse squeaked and squirmed as it was hoisted over the seemingly great divide between the chair and the bed. ‘Put it back!’ exclaimed the nurse as Anjali dropped the tiny creature onto Tom’s chest. The startled animal landed with a barely perceptible thud and immediately started to burrow under Tom’s short-sleeved hospital gown.

  ‘We’ve got to get it out!’

  ‘It’s all right,’ said Anjali. ‘Tom likes it. You’ll see.’

  For a moment the nurse looked furious but Anjali flashed her such a winning smile that the nurse relented.

  ‘If that mouse escapes my head’s going to be on the chopping block . . .’

  ‘It won’t. Tom is its home.’

  The nurse shuddered. ‘How could he bear those scratchy little paws walking all over his bare skin . . .’

  The nurse passed Anjali an antiseptic wipe and took one for herself even though she hadn’t touched the animal.

  ‘I knew you’d want to kill me for bringing a mouse into the hospital.’

  ‘Well I should . . .’

  Anjali turned to look at the nurse. ‘Thanks. For being good to him, I mean.’

  ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

  ‘I don’t think many people have in his life. Including me.’

  ‘It wasn’t easy coming back, was it? You did the right thing.’

  Anjali’s voice nearly cracked. ‘I owed him.’

  The minutes passed and then the hours. Once Anjali woke up to find her head in the nurse’s lap. She murmured her apologies but the nurse only rubbed her back. The mouse emerged for a few seconds at ten o’clock but immediately disappeared again. Now it was nearly midnight and it was the nurse’s turn to have fallen asleep. Her head hung over her knees, her mouth half-open. In the eerily silent ward Anjali stood guard over her friend and relived that awful moment. She recalled Tom’s white and terrified face as he jumped onto the back of her attacker. The difference in size between the two youths was so marked it reminded her of the time she saw a hissing kitten jump onto the neck of a snarling Alsatian. And Tom, clinging on like the kitten, had been finally shaken off and hurled down those steep, hard stairs, rolling over and over and over, gathering momentum until, with a sickening crack, his head had hit the wall and he moved no more. She wondered if she would have the guts to risk her life for another as this skinny boy had for her. In real life, she thought, heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

  Anjali scraped back her chair and stood up to stretch her legs. If she were dancing in a club the night would still feel young but in the twilight world of a quiet hospital ward it
seemed late, so very late. Yawning silently, she got her things together, uncertain whether she should wake up the nurse to tell her that she’d had enough for one night. She decided it was best just to go. But as she zipped up her leather jacket Anjali realised that she was going to have to take the mouse back with her. Reluctantly she peeled back the sheet and the white cotton blanket and observed Tom’s hospital gown. The mouse suddenly darted out of Tom’s sleeve and ran over the tips of Anjali’s fingers which made her cry out in surprise. The nurse awoke, groaning a little, and opened her eyes, and when they focussed she saw that a smile had appeared on Tom’s dry lips. She grabbed hold of Anjali’s arm.

  ‘He’s awake!’ she exclaimed.

  ‘And he’s moving!’ said Anjali.

  Then, infinitely slowly, they observed Tom’s right hand drag across the sheet and move, by degrees, towards his left shoulder. His wrist flexed and he cupped his fingers close to the opening of his sleeve. After a moment, white whiskers quivering, the mouse crept cautiously out of a fold in the pale blue cotton and sat on the palm of Tom’s hand. It sniffed his skin and appeared to lick it. The smile on Tom’s face grew wider and one eyelid flickered and opened. The mouse disappeared back into his sleeve.

  ‘Tom!’ cried Anjali, throwing herself at him. ‘You’re awake!’

  The nurse had to dive over to save the stand that held the intravenous fluid from toppling to the floor.

  ‘Anjali?’ said Tom in a weak and croaky voice.

  ‘I’m here! I think you’re gonna be all right!’

  The nurse put one hand on Anjali’s head and the other on Tom’s.

  ‘I thought you was dead or I’d never have left you! It was only ’cos the bloke next to me on the bus was reading the local paper that I’m here now . . .’

  Tom’s eyes grew wide and moved about the room trying to take in his strange surroundings. Anjali and the nurse just looked at him. It was a little like witnessing a birth. Anjali fought hard to hold back the tears. The nurse looked over at her and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand.

  ‘Let it out, love. It’s allowed.’

  ‘I don’t do crying.’

  Then Tom noticed the nurse. He looked wildly at this stranger in uniform and suddenly he panicked and tried to get up but could not. He clawed desperately at the intravenous drip.

  ‘Ssssh! Easy! Easy!’ said the nurse, gently pushing him back onto the pillow and smoothing back the tape over his wrist. ‘There’s no need to be scared . . . We’re trying to make you better.’

  Anjali grabbed hold of his mouse, who had surfaced in all the commotion, and gently put the creature back into his hands.

  ‘Am I in prison?’

  Anjali burst out laughing. ‘If this is your idea of a prison, your century ain’t as bad as you’ve made out! Can’t you see that this is a hospital?’

  Anjali met the nurse’s confused stare. ‘Just our little joke. Me and Tom go back a long way . . . Especially Tom!’

  Tom was breathing more slowly but he continued to give sidelong glances at the nurse. ‘Where is Blueskin?’ he asked abruptly.

  Anjali was taken by surprise and since no plausible deception immediately sprang to mind she had to resort to the truth. ‘I told him you were dead. I thought you were! It was right after it happened. He didn’t take it too well. He said he never wanted to clap eyes on me again . . . And now he’s disappeared off the face of the planet.’ Anjali hesitated for a moment and then said: ‘There’s no easy way to say this – but I think the Tar Man’s gone back.’

  ‘Blueskin’s left me behind!’ Tom looked stricken. ‘But how can I survive here without him?’

  He tried to sit up again and the nurse pushed him firmly back down.

  Anjali frowned and then her expression cleared as if she had come to a decision. ‘I’ll sort something out, Tom. I don’t know what yet. But something. Anyway, you ain’t alone. You got your mouse.’

  The nurse looked shocked. Anjali laughed her fruity laugh.

  ‘And maybe, if you keep your stinky little friend away from me, you got me, too . . .’

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  Ring! Ring! Ring!

  In which Peter says sorry to Kate and

  Bartholomew’s Fair hosts a family quarrel

  Peter did not react to Kate’s touch but let his head hang forward towards his knees. His legs had turned to jelly and the insides of his lungs were burning. He forced himself to stand upright and shouted at Gideon, sucking in a rasping breath after every few words.

  ‘Don’t wait . . . Don’t let . . . the Tar Man . . . get Kate!’

  But Gideon was staring in astonishment at something to Peter’s left.

  Peter followed his gaze and saw Kate standing next to him, hands on waist and head tipped to one side, a half-smile on her face. She had something tucked under one arm but Peter could not tell what it was in the semi-darkness. He stood up.

  ‘I wondered when you were going to notice me.’

  ‘Kate! How did you get here?’

  ‘I’m a fast mover!’ she said and suddenly started to giggle.

  Peter shot a puzzled glance at Gideon as he started to jog back to join them. He was out of breath. ‘The Lord be praised that you are safe!’ he panted. ‘Featherstone came after us and confessed that it was but a ruse. Alas, he has too many dependents to dare refuse Blueskin, though I do not think he is a wicked man. You are not hurt, Mistress Kate?’

  ‘No – though my heart was beating so fast I thought I was going to die of fright!’ Kate held out her hands and wriggled her fingers. She mimed bringing down the blade of a knife on them. ‘The Tar Man said he’d chop them off if I didn’t tell him the code. He must have believed me, otherwise he’d have done it. I know he would.’

  Peter stared at his friend then gulped and looked down, consumed by guilt. But it was raw fury that blazed in Gideon’s eyes. His nostrils flared.

  ‘It’s funny,’ continued Kate, ‘I was so scared I could have sworn I felt the blood trickling down my fingers.’

  ‘Where is the brute now?’ Gideon asked. ‘Has he already skulked back to his lair?’

  ‘If you hurry, you’ll find him in the fortune-teller’s tent. I tied him up – but I don’t think I made a great of job of it.’

  Gideon raised his eyebrows. ‘You tied up Blueskin?’

  ‘I’d go after him right now if I were you,’ she replied. ‘Before he gets away.’

  Gideon did not need to be told twice. He turned on his heels and charged up the street in the direction of Bartholomew’s Fair, pale hair flying, swerving out of people’s way. He stopped only to shout back: ‘Peter! Be sure not to leave your friend’s side.’

  Peter turned to Kate. ‘I shouldn’t have left you like that. I’m sorry.’

  ‘It’s okay. You were worried about Gideon. Anyway, I can look after myself.’

  Peter looked at her without blinking. ‘But . . . how did you do it?’

  Kate shrugged her shoulders.

  ‘No. Tell me. How did you do it?’

  Kate averted her gaze from Peter. While she kept this secret to herself she could pretend it was not happening. She could imagine what it would be like if everyone knew. She slipped her hand into Peter’s. He let her. ‘We’d better get moving. I’ll tell you later.’

  Kate set off but Peter pulled her back. She turned around to look at him and he scrutinised her face. ‘What’s up, Kate?’

  She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’

  ‘I don’t believe you.’

  Kate shook her head again.

  As they set off, the thing that Kate was carrying under her arm fell silently to the ground. Peter reached down to pick it up and held it, with distaste, between thumb and forefinger. ‘Was this alive once?’ Peter peered at it in the dark.

  Kate laughed. ‘Parson Ledbury is going to be well pleased when we see him.’

  ‘Oh!’ exclaimed Peter, laughing. ‘It’s his wig!’

  Kate set off at a run, holding up her cumbersom
e skirts, already stained with dirt to a depth of six inches.

  ‘What happened to your trainers?’ called Peter after her.

  ‘The Tar Man took them.’

  ‘What! Why?’

  ‘Just what I thought. Come on!’ she said. ‘I really, really want to see the Tar Man get what’s coming to him!’

  ‘Ring! Ring! Ring!’ chanted a swelling crowd as they enclosed the two men in a tight circle. Hand in hand, Peter and Kate drove a path through the mass of onlookers as the news spread like wildfire that a fight was in the offing. They strained to hear the muffled sounds of combat over the babble of the spectators.

  ‘Do you think it could be them?’ asked Peter.

  Kate nodded. ‘Yeah, it’s got to be.’ Her eyes were narrow and shining. ‘And I hope Gideon will beat him to a bloody pulp!’

  Peter turned round to grin at Kate. ‘That’s not like you!’

  ‘It is now.’ Kate did not grin back.

  Peter waited until he had turned round again before he let his smile melt off his face. Kate’s ordeal with the Tar Man had been his fault. He wouldn’t let it happen again.

  Soon they hit a wall of backs which they could not breach. They jumped up as high as they could, using the shoulders of the protesting people in front to lever themselves up, but still they could see nothing above the rows of tricorn hats. Worse, a troupe of performers on stilts arrived, determined to find out the cause of all the excitement. They wore grotesque head masks, oversized and with bulbous noses and crude gashes of red paint for mouths. They loomed out of the darkness and pushed Peter and Kate unconcernedly to one side. To avoid being crushed the children were obliged to squeeze into the gaps between giant legs clothed with acres of flapping, striped silk. Peter craned his neck upwards at the towering figures that teetered about on their stilts for balance. He thought that he and Kate must look like baby giraffes cowering for protection under their parents.

 
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