A chase in time, p.1
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       A Chase in Time, p.1

           Sally Nicholls
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A Chase in Time

  To my Auntie Jean,

  with thanks for

  all the summers.


  The boy in the mirror

  The mirror hung by the stairs in Aunt Joanna’s hallway. It was tall and wide, with a gold frame full of curling leaves, and scrolls, and fat baby angels, and baskets of flowers, and twiddles. Aunt Joanna said it had once belonged to a French aristocrat, in the days before the revolutionaries chopped off all the aristocrats’ heads and turned their palaces into art galleries.

  And once, when Alex Pilgrim was seven years old, he had looked into the mirror and another boy had looked back.

  The boy in the mirror was Alex’s age, or perhaps a little older. He had light-brown hair and a sturdy sort of face. He was wearing a woolly blue jumper and grey knickerbockers. Knickerbockers, if you don’t know, are an old-fashioned type of trouser – shorter than long trousers but longer than shorts – worn by old-fashioned schoolboys in the days before boys were allowed real trousers.

  This boy was brushing his hair in the mirror, rather hurriedly, as though he would much rather be doing something else. As Alex watched, he turned his head sideways and yelled at somebody out of sight. Alex couldn’t hear what he said, but it sounded impatient: “I’m doing it!” perhaps, or “I’m coming!” Then he put the hairbrush down and ran out of the frame.

  Alex stayed by the mirror. It still showed Aunt Joanna’s hallway, but nothing in the hallway was quite as it ought to be. The walls were papered with yellow-and-green-striped wallpaper, and there was a large green plant he had never seen before and a white front door with coloured glass above the sill. It felt very strange not to see his own face looking back at him. He put out a hand, and there was a sort of ripple in the reflection. When the picture settled, there he was as usual: small, fair-haired, and rather worried-looking. There was the ordinary cream wall behind him. There was the ordinary brown door. Everything just as it always was.

  Alex had never believed in those children in books who discovered secret passageways, or Magic Faraway Trees, or aliens at the bottom of the garden, and kept them a secret. Wouldn’t you want to tell everyone about them? What was the fun of a secret passage if you had no one to boast about it to?

  But he knew that he would never tell his family about the boy in the mirror. Of course he wouldn’t. What would be the point? None of them would ever believe him.

  After he saw the boy, though, the mirror became Alex’s favourite thing at Applecott House. He liked it more than the long garden with the high stone walls, and the blackberry bushes, and the apple trees. He liked it more than the three cats, and the rabbit in the hutch, and the playroom with the doll’s house, and the rocking horse, and the ship in the bottle, and the shelves of old-fashioned children’s books.

  Alex loved beautiful things. He, his sister Ruby, and their parents lived in a scrubby little house on a scrubby little estate on the edge of an ugly red-brick town. Aunt Joanna’s house was about as different from Alex’s house as it was possible for an English house to be. It was big and old and rather grand – it always made Alex think of William’s house in the Just William books. It had iron gates with a stone ball on the top of each gatepost, and two staircases – a grand one for family and a poky one for the servants. Not that Aunt Joanna had any servants nowadays, of course. Nowadays, she ran a bed-and-breakfast business, and all the bedrooms were kept nice for bed-and-breakfast guests.

  Aunt Joanna was really Ruby and Alex’s father’s aunt. Both of their parents worked busy jobs, which was OK most of the time, but made school holidays complicated. Ever since they were small, Ruby and Alex had gone to stay with Aunt Joanna for two weeks on their own every summer. Their parents paid for their bedroom, like proper bed-and-breakfast guests, and every evening they had to write on a piece of paper whether they wanted sausages or eggs or bacon for breakfast. They would help Aunt Joanna with the bed-and-breakfast work as well. Ruby’s favourite job was polishing the breakfast table, by sitting on the duster and skidding around on top of it. Alex’s was folding the bed sheets, Aunt Joanna on one side, him and Ruby on the other, the three of them coming to meet in the middle.

  Applecott House was full of lovely objects. Aunt Joanna’s great-uncle had travelled all around the world collecting things, and most of the things he had collected had ended up in Applecott House. There were jade and ebony cabinets from Japan, statues of gods from Ancient Peru, and brightly coloured vases and plates from Turkey. Alex loved them all. But he loved the mirror best.

  “Is it very old?” he asked Aunt Joanna, the summer he was ten and Ruby was twelve. “A hundred years old? Five hundred? A thousand?”

  “Probably about two hundred and fifty,” she said. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? But I expect it’ll have to go when the house is sold.”

  Because this was the last holiday Alex and Ruby would spend with Aunt Joanna. At the end of the summer, the house was to be sold and most of the lovely objects with it. Aunt Joanna would go and live in a little flat in Eastcombe, by the sea, where there would be no room for beautiful French mirrors or inlaid cabinets from Japan.

  Everyone was very sorry about this. Alex minded so much about Applecott House being sold that it hurt. But even he didn’t mind as much as Aunt Joanna did. Aunt Joanna had been born in Applecott House. It was Aunt Joanna who had worked so hard to keep it. She had set up the bed-and-breakfast business, and done all the cooking and cleaning and washing and accounting, just so the house didn’t have to be sold. But at last, she had had to admit defeat. She was getting too old to do the work. And the house got more expensive to look after every year. Pipes kept bursting, and tiles kept falling off the roof, and mysterious things kept going wrong with the central heating.

  “Ah, well,” she said to Alex, as he helped to water the garden. “I suppose it had to happen some day. Still, it’s a wrench, after all these years.”

  “I wish I had millions and millions of pounds,” Alex said to Ruby that afternoon, as they sat in the garden. Ruby was reading. Alex was playing with a silver bottle he’d found in one of the cabinets. It had a round silver stopper, which he was trying to unscrew, but it didn’t want to come out. “I’d buy Applecott House and let Aunt Joanna live here as long as she wanted.”

  “I wouldn’t,” said Ruby. “I’d buy a castle in France, with a swimming pool, and a private cinema, and a butler who did everything I asked him to, including homework, and a enormous library like Belle’s in Beauty and the Beast, and a garden so big I could hold rock festivals in it, and…”

  But Alex didn’t care about any of those things.

  “I want Aunt Joanna not to have to sell the house,” he said. “That’s all I want.”

  As he said the words, the stopper came out of the bottle, so suddenly that he dropped the whole thing in surprise. A great quantity of dust and smoke poured out on to his lap.

  Ruby said, “Eugh! What is it?”

  “I don’t know,” said Alex. He tipped the bottle upside down, sending another cloud of dust mushrooming out.

  Ruby coughed and waved her hands, and said, “I hope that’s not something important! What is it, someone’s ashes?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Alex. He looked down into the bottle. There didn’t seem to be anything else inside. “Not a person’s ashes. It might be a hamster’s.”

  “It’s old, anyway,” said Ruby. She took the bottle from him and frowned. “Yuck! Why don’t we ever get a bottle with a genie in it?”

  “It’d be my genie if we did,” said Alex.

  The rest of the day passed the way days at Applecott House always passed. They walked into the village and bought sweets at the Co-op. They picked blackberries from the garden and made a summer pudding for tea. They played a long game of Mon
opoly that ended, as usual, with Ruby owning half the board, and Alex nothing but two pound notes.

  “To buy a cup of tea with,” said Ruby. “I’m charitable, me. I give to the homeless.”

  “Huh,” said Alex.

  It wasn’t until they were going up to bed that he remembered the bottle. There it sat, on the hall table. He picked it up, feeling vaguely guilty. Perhaps that dust had been something important.

  “I wish you really were a genie,” he said sadly. Then he looked in the mirror, just in case there were any ghosts there tonight.

  And there were.

  In the mirror were two children. One was the same boy Alex had seen three years ago. Alex had grown, but the boy had stayed exactly the same age, only this time he was wearing a sailor suit and holding a paper bag. An older girl was standing beside him. The girl, who looked about thirteen, had long dark hair and a rabbity sort of face. She was wearing a blue dress, black stockings and a white pinafore. She was trying to take something from the paper bag – Alex guessed it must have sweets in it – and the boy was trying to stop her.

  “Ruby,” said Alex, very cautiously. “Can you come over here? Like, now?”

  “What is it?” said Ruby. Then she looked in the mirror. “Whoa.”

  “You can see them,” said Alex. He’d been wondering if the whole thing might be a dream.

  “Is it projecting from somewhere?” said Ruby. She looked around for a projector, but there wasn’t one. “Maybe it’s a TV screen,” she said. “Is Aunt Joanna doing it? Do you think it’s to help sell the house?”

  “I don’t think it’s a TV,” said Alex. But he started to feel worried. Could Ruby be right? Could the one magic thing that had ever happened to him be something ordinary after all? “Look,” he said, and he touched the glass.

  Except that there wasn’t any glass any more. His hand went right through the mirror. Ruby squealed.


  Alex tried to pull his arm back, but found that he couldn’t. It was like falling downhill in slow motion, except he was falling inside the mirror. He had to step forward to stop himself from tipping over. Ruby said, “Alex!” again, and then, “Alex, what’s happening?”

  “I don’t know—” Alex said, and landed with a thump on his hands and knees.

  “Ow!” said Ruby, behind him.

  Someone screamed.

  Alex looked up. He was on the floor in Aunt Joanna’s hall, but everything was different. There was yellow-and-green-striped wallpaper, and a white front door with coloured glass above it, and all the furniture was wrong. Standing in front of him were two children, who were both screaming. One was a girl with a rabbity sort of face, and long, dark hair with a white ribbon in it.

  The other was a boy in a sailor suit.


  The house behind the mirror

  “Holy hell!” said Ruby. She scrambled up. “What just happened? And stop screaming!”

  The boy and the girl stopped screaming. The boy scrambled backwards, so he was pressed as close to the girl as he could get. The girl put her arm around him. They both looked terrified.

  “Are you witches?” said the girl.

  “No,” said Alex. “I’m a boy, I’d be a wizard. But I’m just a boy. Where are we?”

  “England,” said the boy. He looked about eight. He seemed reassured by Alex’s lack of wizardliness. “Suffolk. Dalton. Applecott House. I say, though – you can’t just be an ordinary boy. You walked right out of a looking glass. Did you come from Looking-Glass Land, like in Alice?”

  “The mirror!” said Alex. He looked around and, sure enough, there it was, hanging exactly where it had always hung in Aunt Joanna’s house. It looked perfectly ordinary. It showed the new, strange hall, with the green-and-yellow wallpaper, and the four children. Alex went over to it and pressed his hand against the glass. It was just glass. Wherever they were now, they were stuck.

  “I think—” he said, but no one was listening.

  “We’re in the past,” Ruby was saying. “We’ve travelled in time! Why else would you all be wearing clothes like that? Unless it’s a trick. Or a secret room or something – but it would have to be a pretty big one.”

  “It’s a dream,” the girl was saying. “I’m dreaming. Or I got knocked on the head, and I’m seeing things. Or—”

  The little boy was hammering on the mirror.

  “Let me through!” he was yelling. “Open Sesame, you beastly object! I want to go to Looking-Glass Land!” He swung the mirror sideways, as though – like Ruby – he expected to find a secret door hidden behind it.

  Alex said, “Don’t!” at the same time as the girl cried, “Henry, you goop! You’ll break it, and they’ll never get back!”

  “Everybody shut up right now!” Ruby yelled. They all stopped talking, rather shocked. “Right.” Ruby pointed at the girl. “You. What’s your name, and what date is it?”

  “Dora,” said the girl. “Dora Pilgrim. And this is my brother Henry. And it’s the twenty-third of August, 1912.”

  “I knew it!” said Ruby. “I’m Ruby, and that’s Alex. We’ve come from the future – from over a hundred years in the future. We’re Pilgrims too – you must be our great-great-grandparents or something.” Dora and Henry both started trying to argue, but she ignored them. “Henry might be. Your children would have a different surname, wouldn’t they? Shut up, both of you! I can prove it – look.”

  She took her phone out of her jeans pocket and showed it to Dora and Henry.

  “No signal,” she said. She laughed, a little hysterically. “There wouldn’t be, would there? But look!”

  She flicked through her phone, searching – Alex supposed – for something spectacularly futuristic, which would prove they really did come from the twenty-first century. She settled on a video of Alex playing with one of Aunt Joanna’s cats in the garden at Applecott House. It didn’t look particularly futuristic to Alex, but Dora and Henry were impressed.

  “It’s like a Picture Palace in your pocket!” said Henry.

  “But it’s colour,” said Dora. “It’s better than the Picture Palace. And that’s the garden here – isn’t it? But everything’s different. And you’re different too. You smell different. And Ruby’s a girl’s name. You are a girl, aren’t you? Do all girls wear trousers where you come from?”

  “Who cares about trousers?” said Henry. “Do you all have time machines? Do people have wings yet?”

  Dora and Henry did look different, Alex realised. Less clean. Their hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in a week. Perhaps it hadn’t. And they smelled, a bit, or Dora did at least. Perhaps deodorant hadn’t been invented in 1912 either. There was an ingrained sort of grubbiness about them too. Henry had dirt under his fingernails, and grass-stains on the knees of his knickerbockers. There was a sort of grubbiness to the whole house, actually. There was a heavy, lingering smell of coal-smoke and a sharp, thick sort of smell which it took Alex a moment to realise was tobacco, as well as the ordinary country smells of grass, and flowers, and heavy summer air from the open window. At least the garden smelled the same as it always did.

  “Well—” he said.

  Just then, the front door opened. Two men came through, carrying a wooden packing case, followed by a boy in a flat cap with a smaller box in his arms. One man looked like a servant; he also wore a flat cap, and hobnailed boots, but the other was young and wore a grey flannel suit and a grey hat, the sort with a brim and crease in the top.

  “That’s right,” he was saying, “just through there – oh, hullo, kiddies! You couldn’t grab that door for me, could you, old chap?”

  “Old chap” seemed to be Henry, who ran over and opened the door to the living room. The men carried the packing case through. Alex and Ruby followed them curiously. The living room looked much less old-fashioned than Alex had expected. He’d thought perhaps it would look like a room on one of the period dramas his parents liked to watch, but it was much more lived-in. There were bo
oks and piles of paper on the table, which there never were in period dramas, and a heap of toys by the corner cupboard: a cricket ball and stumps, a couple of tennis racquets, a game of Snakes and Ladders and a draughts set, looking rather as though they’d been pulled out of the cupboard and abandoned. Alex had never thought that people in the past might be untidy. In his head, they all lived in neat, perfect, National Trust houses, except the poor people, who lived in thatched cottages, or slums. The Snakes and Ladders box was coloured in bright reds and blues, which was also unexpected. Alex had seen quite a lot of old-fashioned toys at museums and things, and they were almost always creased and faded and falling to bits. He supposed that was because they were old, and of course they must all have been new once. But it was still strange to see the old-fashioned box looking as bright and new as something you might buy in a toy shop.

  Mostly, however, the living room was full of packing cases, piled two or three high in all the available floor space.

  “Just sling it by the fireplace, Frank,” the young man was saying. “Thanks awfully. Will you two be all right with the other one? I—”


  The man jumped. A woman had appeared from somewhere and was standing in the doorway. She was wearing a long, dark-green dress, and black boots, and her brown hair was done up in a complicated hairstyle on top of her head. She was watching the man, who must be Atherton, with a mixture of exasperation and amusement.

  Atherton looked guilty.

  “Hello, Mary dear,” he said. “Look what’s arrived! It’s the shrunken heads, I’m almost sure it is, and if it isn’t, it’s probably the amulets of power. Dora, my love, be a lamb and pass me that crowbar, would you? Just there, by the totem pole.”

  “Atherton!” said Mary. “I’m very pleased the shrunken heads have arrived, although really, I don’t see why we have to keep all these things in the sitting room. But where on earth have you been? I haven’t seen you since yesterday morning! It’s not that I mind, exactly, but we’ve got a hall that needs decorating, and all the tables and things to lay out for tomorrow, and a girl does worry. You might have been eaten, or run over by a bus, or anything.”

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