adolescent

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challenge

a dead net cord

is an affront

to his soul,

he stands

indignant,

as nakedly

crestfallen

as a child denied,

this bewitching blend

of petulant and

incandescent.

he blows

hot and cold

with fortune’s

favour,

his talent

a given,

a ticket

to glory,

his rise

breathtaking,

meteoric.

he blazes

a trail

and scatters

opponents,

shattered and

shellshocked,

like so much

tumbled debris

in his fiery wake.

Elemental‘ is the first in a trilogy of poems about Sascha Zverev. The second is ‘Adolescent‘ and the third ‘Disarmed‘.

distance

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leaning

he’s far away in his head

from bullies in the hall at break.

whereas thoughts fizz

fruitlessly in her skull

like a wasp caught in a jam jar.

he’s not wasting time

contriving

clever comebacks

he’ll never dare utter.

he is removed from pain,

absenting himself

from the narrow worlds

of hurt and revenge,

refusing to engage,

his grey eyes as clear

and uncompromised

as a winter sky.

[My So-called Life was the best high school drama ever made.]

elemental

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sasha close copy

a teenage tennis up and comer,

capricious as an easter breeze,

unlevelheaded as a maiden in love

in a highstrung bronte

tragical historical romance.

wilful with the whims of the

unfairly cossetted youngest son,

headstrong and mettlesome

as a colt all at once

let loose in a fallow field.

protests, remonstrates,

melodramatic as a princess

in a whirlwind of temper

with her rolling-eyed retinue.

he overflows with righteous indignation,

a frothy head of hard done by,

foaming up fast as shaken soda,

moments later subsiding into

the lingering mild resentment

of a schoolboy scolded out of turn.

he is girlish with youth and giddiness

and wild as a storm on the sea.

Elemental‘ is the first in a trilogy of poems about Sascha Zverev. The second is ‘Adolescent‘ and the third ‘Disarmed‘.

 

The Well, chapter 19

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19 The sting

The next day they met on the wall again. This time Luke was crunching on a crisp red apple as she sat down beside him. It was good to see he’d got his appetite back.

She’d copied the rules down inside the back page of one of her exercise books and left the original version back in her bedroom, carefully folded and slotted into a letter her aunt had once sent her on special perfumed stationery. Sniffing it closely, she’d still been able to detect the faint fragrance of roses.

Strangely, when she’d copied the verse, her writing had taken on some of the qualities of the original writer’s – it was more controlled, loopy and decorative than usual, almost as if she’d been possessed by someone else. It had felt sort of spooky and a chill had run down her spine as she’d been writing.

‘Your handwriting’s neat,’ Luke commented, nodding appreciatively. ‘Mine’s so bad I often can’t read it myself.’

‘Yeah, it’s weird,’ – she had to stop talking as some sirens drowned out her words – ‘it is neater than normal,’ she conceded, feeling slightly uncomfortable as she remembered the sensation she’d had when writing it the night before. There was a tickly kind of prickling on the back of her neck.

‘Right. So we need your dad to get a better job.’

‘Without it backfiring somehow.’ She thought this point could not be stressed enough. Things often seemed to go wrong if you weren’t careful what you wished for or maybe how you wished for it.

‘Uh-huh. So you’re not wishing ill upon anyone, in fact, you’re wishing for plenty, in a way.’ His brow furrowed as he ran his index finger down the list of dos and don’ts. ‘That’s not relevant. Neither is that.’

Elisha felt comforted by his logical analysis. She bent down to pull up the unelasticated socks that had congregated in untidy crinkles round her ankles and scratched at an insect bite just under her knee, making the area red and inflamed. Her Mum always told her not to scratch them but she just couldn’t help it. To stop herself, she sat on her hands and turned her attention back to Luke.

‘Wish forward. Never back. Mmm. Maybe it could be said to be wishing back because he did have a good job before …’ He took another bite of the apple. She couldn’t help thinking that Luke tended to consider everything a bit more carefully than she did. She wondered if it was a skill he’d learnt while poorly.

‘Yes, but I don’t want him to get the same job again. I want him to have a different one, where he doesn’t have to work so hard.’

‘Well then, that’s probably okay, I guess.’

The bell went for the start of class and they both jumped like someone had poked them in the back. Luke just laughed but Elisha had immediately thought ‘heed the bell’ and started to worry about time being up and the hell demons bit.

‘Sit next to me for the story this afternoon,’ Luke urged, as they got up and started heading back to the school building. Elisha nodded quickly and smiled, watching him chuck the apple core into a big yellow cylindrical bin, almost hitting a wasp that was buzzing round it.

Suddenly from across the asphalt, Jasmine ran up to her, yelling – well, screeching really – ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all over all break!’ She sounded really angry and very upset.

Elisha realised that they had sat in a rather out-of-the-way corner to puzzle over the rhyme. It had seemed natural enough because they hadn’t wanted to be disturbed.

‘Why? What’s wrong?’ she asked, for immediately she could see that something was definitely wrong. Jasmine’s face was streaked and wet with tears; her eyes were red; and she looked distressed to the point of anguish.

It had to be something to do with Steph because she wasn’t there and the two girls were nearly always together. ‘What’s happened?’ Her voice came out as a kind of shriek as the panic infected her. ‘Has something happened to Steph? Where is she? Hrmph!’ she went as Jasmine barrelled into her, holding her in a tight, desperate embrace, sobbing and gasping for breath at the same time.

Elisha felt guilty for not being with her friends when they needed her. She wasn’t doing any good turns for anybody else, just worrying about her own problems. As usual. Even though her aunt had warned her not to be selfish.

Jasmine started to stutter out a breathless explanation as Elisha patted her rhythmically on the back as she’d seen people do in movies. Luke looked at her over her friend’s head, his expression bewildered and troubled, like he’d just been assigned some really unpronounceable word in a spelling test.

‘It was a wasp.’ Jasmine took in a big breath. ‘She started to scream and I told her not to hit out at it. I tried to get her to calm down but you know what she’s like with wasps.’

Elisha nodded. ‘Yes, I know. So did it sting her?’

‘It stung her on the arm, just here,’ Jasmine indicated a place on top of her forearm.

Feeling a bit relieved that it was only a wasp sting, Elisha held Jasmine away from her with one arm and rummaged for a tissue in her satchel with the other. ‘Here,’ she handed it to her friend, who wiped her face roughly before blowing her nose noisily. Her beaded braids swung over her face.

Luke looked impatiently at them. ‘The bell’s gone already, you know,’ he prompted, evidently thinking this was a lot of fuss over a wasp sting.

Elisha made a face at him and asked Jasmine: ‘But she’s okay now? Is she in the nurse’s office?’

Elisha had only been there once herself – it was a small clinical room that smelt a bit like a hospital, only mixed with pee, and boasted an iron bed with a mattress covered in plastic, a green first-aid box with a white cross on it mounted on the wall, a sink and a desk and chair where the nurse sat when she was in there. There was a small toilet next to it. It was the kind of place where you instantly felt ill, even if you’d been all right before. She’d been feeling dizzy and lay down on the bed but the plastic cover had made so much noise each time she moved and had smelt so funny and rubbery that she couldn’t wait to get up again.

‘She’s been taken to hospital. Mr Saunders took her in his car because they said the ambulance would take twenty minutes. Elisha, she’s allergic to wasp stings. She nearly died. I couldn’t do anything to help her. She couldn’t breathe; she started to have convulsions or something. I was so scared!

‘Veronica ran into the office to get them to call 999 and Josie went to get the nurse but she couldn’t find her. Just as well Ronnie was there …’ Jasmine stopped to gulp in air, ‘I don’t know what would have happened.’

Even in the middle of her anxiety for her friend, Elisha felt annoyed that Veronica Atkins, of all people, should have come to the rescue. And a little jealous as well.

‘The bell went ages ago. What are you lot doing out here?’ Miss Clements folded her arms and stood over them, looking stern. ‘As if it’s not bad enough falling asleep during assemblies …’

‘Their friend went into anaphylactic shock,’ Luke explained, a little contritely now that he realised it was more serious. Both girls turned their heads to him in astonishment at the word he’d used. ‘She got stung by a wasp.’ He’d spent so much time in hospital that he knew pretty much everything other kids came in with.

Miss Clements frowned and nodded sympathetically. ‘Oh, yes, Stephanie. Well, she’s at the hospital by now. I’m sure she’ll be all right.’ She put an arm round each of the girls’ shoulders. ‘Come on now. Let’s go inside and get to class. Mr Saunders will let us know what’s happening as soon as he can.’ They started walking together. Glancing back at Luke, the teacher said, ‘You too, Luke. There’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.’

 

The Well, chapter 18

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18 What came out of the bucket

curlyShe was in the main hall at school, just after assembly finished, waiting for everyone to leave. On her way out, she realised she’d dropped her charm bracelet somewhere. Her great-aunt had given it to her when she was small and used to give her a new charm to add to it each birthday. It was real gold and she wasn’t supposed to wear it to school. She was sure she’d put it on that morning but, with the crowd of children leaving, there’d been no hope of spotting it on the floor. Crouching down and peering through their legs, once or twice she caught a flash of something reflecting in the sunlight – but then lost sight of it again.

‘Have you lost something, Ellie?’ Steph crouched down behind her, following her gaze.

‘I think so, Steph. You go on though or we’ll both be in trouble for being late.’

‘Are you sure I can’t help you look?’

‘No, it’s okay. I just have to wait till the hall is empty.’

Detached from the children’s thunderous collective noise, the racket slowly became alien and overwhelming and she wondered to herself how she could stand it every day. When she was a part of it, she never even noticed it.

Finally, the hall was empty and Elisha studied the expanse of rather scuffed parquet flooring. It boasted a few souvenirs of the assembly – a green v-necked jumper, sleeves across itself, one of those multicolour biro pens – you could choose which colour to use and press that one down. The trouble with them was that the more legible colours ran out quickly, so you’d only have light blue and bright pink left, which didn’t show up on anything. There was also a hymn book, open face down and some bits of ratty tissue from a pocket. But no sign of the bracelet. The glinting she’d seen came from the rather more prosaic source of a crumpled piece of tinfoil from someone’s sandwich. Had someone picked the bracelet up? She supposed they might hand it in to lost property. That’s what she would do if she found something like that.

She now thought she knew how it must have come off – when she was pulling her sweater over her head and then her arms out of the sleeves. She thought she remembered there being a slight clatter. It was always very hot when they all crowded into the hall, even on the coldest days. Very annoyed with herself, first for wearing the bracelet to begin with and second for being so careless as to lose it, she sighed and turned to the doors at the back to leave.

Suddenly, from behind her she heard a commotion and a girl’s voice crying ‘Help! Help!’ And Veronica Atkins ran out onto the stage from the wings. Intrigued, Elisha waited to see what was happening.

But it wasn’t long before she wished she hadn’t. First off, there was just a shadow … but she didn’t like the look of it at all. It seemed to be a very big shadow, compared to Veronica’s; and it was a rather weird shape. Nor was she reassured by Veronica’s face, which was contorted into a petrified mask-like grimace. And Elisha could see that she was shaking even from where she stood, in the main body of the hall. The girl seemed to be frozen to the spot, staring up at the thing whose shadow darkened the wooden boards near her.

Her heart beginning to beat very fast, Elisha ran to the side of the hall and stooped to hide behind a few stacks of black plastic chairs. She put her head out and saw the thing emerge onto the stage. It was huge, monstrous, a black shiny carapace, massive, deadly-looking pincers … It stretched a claw out, knocking Veronica over and pinning her to the floor.

It was a giant stag beetle. That was what had been coming out of the bucket in her dream the other night.

Elisha gasped, stared, blinked a couple of times, then pinched her left upper arm hard with her right thumb and forefinger. Veronica wasn’t exactly screaming, more whimpering and moaning, trapped and helpless.

This must be a dream, Elisha thought, at the same time wondering why she didn’t act, instead of just hiding. But she was genuinely puzzled as to what to do. Should she rescue Veronica (and how) or should she give the beetle a round of applause? It was a real dilemma.

The creature that had seemed so cute when it was little was terrifying in these proportions. But, although it was holding Veronica, it didn’t really seem to be hurting her. What did stag beetles eat? Maybe she could tempt it away with something from her snack box?

‘Elisha!’ Veronica had seen her. She ducked back behind the chairs guiltily. ‘Elisha, help me, for God’s sake.’ So she could get her name right when she wanted.

Now she supposed she had to do something. Putting her satchel on the floor, she bent down and rummaged through it, prising the top off the Tupperware lunchbox. Was it more likely to go for an apple or a bar of chocolate?

While doing this, she heard activity from the stage. The beetle had released Veronica, but was pushing her along with its head, its pincers near her shoulders. Veronica had her hands over her eyes but still managed to call out desperately, ‘Elisha!’

She sprang into action, a Curlywurly in one hand and a Granny Smith in the other, running towards the stage. Waving them in front of her, she tried to get the beetle’s attention. ‘Here, here,’ she cried, briefly dangling them over Veronica, trying not to look at it in case it scared her too much, then moving to the side of the beetle, watching its head follow her. It took a couple of attempts before she really got it hooked, turning away from its victim towards her. At that second, Luke appeared from nowhere and dragged Veronica off into the wings. Veronica yelped when she first felt him touch her but then relaxed when she realised he wasn’t an enormous insect.

Elisha dropped the apple and Curlywurly on the stage, then thought again, bent down and took the wrapper off the chocolate for the beetle. All of a sudden someone was shaking her by the shoulder. Angrily, she turned her head.

‘You dozed off,’ Steph was saying in a whisper, ‘and Miss C. saw you.’

Elisha was back in the hall in the middle of assembly, cross-legged on the floor between her friends, one hand fingering the charms on her bracelet. ‘Huh?’ she thought and stared at Steph in confusion.

‘Don’t worry, she only smiled.’ Steph nudged her with her elbow.

Elisha looked round for Veronica Atkins to check she was all right. The dream had seemed so real. But she couldn’t see much from down on the ground, despite craning her neck upwards.

‘Have you seen Veronica?’

‘Yes. Why?’ Steph was engaged in writing a memory jogger on the back of her hand in black biro. It said ‘watch TOTP’. She turned back to Elisha. ‘You missed it all. She had some weird kind of turn or something. Maybe she fell asleep too because she started screaming and moaning. They took her to the sick room.’

Elisha sighed with relief. ‘But she’s okay?’

‘As far as I know.’ Steph clipped the lid back on her biro and hooked it onto the v-neckline of her sweater. ‘I thought we didn’t like her anyway?’

Assembly was finishing for real (or she thought it was real this time) – the teachers were making the kids stand up row by row from the back and file out. Luke hung back from his row to join them.

‘Wow. What was all that about with Veronica?’ He shook his head expressively. ‘It was like she went mental.’ His eyes searched Elisha’s face – she wasn’t sure what for. ‘Don’t you think, Elisha?’

She frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

‘It was almost as if she thought some giant insect was chasing her,’ Luke said.

Luckily, Steph had moved further away from them and hadn’t heard him. Eyes widening, Elisha looked at Luke sharply and pulled him aside by tugging his shirtsleeve. ‘Are we having the same dreams again?’ she demanded, not sure why this made her annoyed with him.

‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘Are we? You tell me.’

‘You know we are. But what about Veronica Atkins? Is she having the same ones too? And why?’

‘Hurry it up there.’ Mr Saunders was holding the door open and beckoning them through. The hall was almost deserted. Looking back at it, Elisha shuddered slightly, remembering the giant beetle.

‘I think it’s you,’ Luke confided, making Elisha raise her eyebrows. ‘It’s your dream,’ he continued. ‘But if you dream one of us into it, it becomes our dream too.’

He could be right. After a moment’s indignation that everyone else was invading her private subconscious, she began to think about the positives. She started to wish she could control her dreams more. Then perhaps she could dream that she met her favourite popstar and he fell in love with her …

‘Is it the well giving you the power, d’you think?’ Luke meditated, as they pushed through the heavy green door into the classroom.

It was her turn to shrug. ‘Don’t ask me.’

The Well, chapter 17

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17 Back to school

All of a sudden, it was that time again, finding uniforms didn’t fit, smart shoes were scuffed and tight round her toes, white knee-socks had no elastic and that all her pencils had broken leads. Yellow HB pencils – they were never the same as when they were new out of the box, beautifully sharpened to an exquisite point.

Going back to school was one of those times Elisha dreaded. She felt scared about it, unsure – would it be the same? Would she and her friends still get on or would something have happened over the summer to change them? She’d have a new form teacher who maybe wouldn’t be as nice as her old one. Nervously, she combed tangles out of her hair after her shower as she worried about things that could go wrong.

They hadn’t managed to get away anywhere all summer. It didn’t really bother her as much as she’d thought it would in the end. But her parents seemed different somehow – the way they looked at each other over her head. They were preoccupied with money matters, making calculations in notebooks, looking at creditcard statements, waiting for red bills. Her dad would spend ages each morning going through papers looking at the job sections, ringing ads in black biro before calling people up about them. He kept playing an old LP, singing along to some of the songs, especially one that said he had to ‘get back in the line’. She thought the song sounded sad, the one about champagne and Coca-Cola was more fun and her favourite was about being an apeman. But, strangely, it always seemed to cheer her dad up. Her mum would sometimes sing too. She said it wasn’t so bad when everyone was in the same boat. Elisha knew what she meant but surely it would have been safer if not so many people were in the boat.

It meant it was normally afternoon before they could go anywhere for a day out. Other days he’d had to go to the employment exchange in the next town – this seemed to take all morning too – and when he got back he’d be in a bad mood, snapping at everyone.

Last night, her mum had scrawled out a list of things not to forget, on a piece of laminated yellow paper, from her pile of rough paper, the clear back-sides of junk-mail circulars.

It felt so weird being in school clothes again. She was in the green checked summer uniform school dress, with a dark green v-neck sweater over it. They were having what her mum called an ‘Indian summer’, unseasonably warm and humid, sun-filled days that only turned cold in the evenings long after she was home from school.

But even odder was having her mum come to school with her, asking Elisha if she was dressed okay, worrying about make-up and perfume, and what to say to the pupils. Although pleased she’d got the job, Elisha was in two minds over whether it would work out. It was introducing someone from her home realm into the school world, which she thought of as completely separate, where she could really be a different person. She worried about how other kids would react to her mum being there. But she had to concede that her mum looked great, her ash-blonde hair twisted up into a chignon, in a long, flowing dark-green maxi skirt and cork-soled green platform sandals. She thought she must be the best-looking mum in the world, let alone the best-looking dinner lady.

Her dad hadn’t managed to get a proper job as yet. In the end he’d had to take a rather menial position that he kept saying was just temporary. He was working in a factory on the other side of town, mainly doing night shifts so that she would sometimes hear him come in, about 6.30 in the morning, his key rattling briefly in the front-door Chubb lock before connecting, being very quiet, closing the door gently behind him.

Normally he’d be in the kitchen when she got down for breakfast, would be starting off coffee and stuff, but looking tired and a bit defeated despite his attempts at cheeriness. She noticed a few white hairs at his temples and deeper lines around his eyes. As he poured her a glass of juice one morning, his hand shook very slightly. It was one of those unusually shaped smoky brown petrol station glasses. They were her favourites so that she reached and took it from him in case he dropped it.

Then he would go to bed for a while, mid-morning to late afternoon, before getting up and having something to eat prior to his next shift.

Her mother too seemed weary – she frowned more frequently than before and her voice had a slight edge to it, like she was teetering on the brink of a crevasse. Her kind brown eyes also seemed clouded and troubled more often.

Elisha knew she had to try to do something to help.

The thought of the school bell was like a death knell to the holiday. Ominous yet at the same time triumphant. It made Elisha’s heart beat fast under her dress and sweater.

When it came down to it, it was exciting to see her friends again though. They rushed towards her in the playground before the bell, both chattering at once, bursting with holiday news.

Jasmine’s hair was in beautiful cornrows, with different primary-coloured beads strung on the ends. Apparently, it was normally very expensive but her mum was friends with a hairdresser who did it for free. But they were all a bit worried that the school might object to the colours.

And Luke. He’d completely changed. For a long time he’d seemed to Elisha like one of those balloons that had somehow survived a birthday party and the general cruel popping at the end of the afternoon. Ever since he’d been in a slow, sad decline, doomed to shrink a little every day, gradually diminishing towards nothingness. Losing air, relinquishing life.

Now suddenly it was as if someone was blowing him up again – pumping air back into him, plumping out his flesh, making him new once more. The boy he’d been before.

Elisha didn’t think she could be the only one who’d noticed his rejuvenation. His hair had grown longer and thicker, his arms were less skinny, face less pinched – he’d kind of filled out, like those women who used Oil of Ulay on TV. And he smiled more often and more widely than for the last few months. Whereas before she hadn’t liked to look at him because he made her miserable, now she actually found his face, his presence cheered her up.

Also she wanted to ask his advice about what to do. He already knew about (and believed in) the well and had experienced its magic. In fact, it was as if the well had selected him and drawn him in without Elisha saying anything. So perhaps it was all right to consult him. If she just followed the rules on the paper, surely things would work out fine?

She cornered him at the morning break, finding him on a low wall by the playground, eating a Milky Way that had partly melted from being left in his bag in the sun by the class window all morning. The chocolate was leaving dark-brown gloops on his fingers that he had to lick up. He was sucking some off his right thumb when Elisha joined him.

It was hard to talk about her family situation to an outsider. But with Luke it seemed a bit easier – he listened without interrupting much until she’d finished, then crumpled the chocolate wrapper into a ball while pursing his lips and obviously thinking hard.

‘So, your dad needs a better job, swiftish?’

Was this all it really boiled down to? She nodded.

‘And you want to know if the rules allow you to wish for it?’

‘Yes, without something bad happening by mistake.’

‘Have you got them with you?’

‘Er, no. I didn’t want to lose them … ‘ She really wasn’t as good at planning things as she’d thought. Her attempts to remember the verse were not impressive and Luke’s face registered this fact with a progressively more pained and exasperated expression.

‘Look, bring it in tomorrow and we can go over it,’ he finally said, cutting her off as she mumbled, ‘One good turn forgets another.’

‘Sorry. There was so much to remember this morning. And I couldn’t tell my mum to write it on the list.’

 

The Well, chapter 16

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16 The stag beetle

lyons-maid

Elisha skipped from one pink paving stone to the next until she got a stitch in her left side. Slowing down, she continued to avoid the cracks, paused to watch a ladybird crawl up a blade of grass over someone’s wall.

The smells in the avenue changed with the seasons. In summer, some lovely jasmine or honeysuckle fragrance would make her want to inhale deeply but it competed with the putrid stink of drying dog shit on concrete, which made her pinch her nostrils together with one hand.

The newsagents was on the corner of Sparrow Road, in a tiny parade of odd shops – an old-fashioned hair salon with yellowy windows where old ladies probably requested blue rinses and perms, a wool shop displaying inelegantly arranged, outmoded fashions, a sub-post office with half-empty shelves of over-priced stationery and cheap, plastic toys. With very little effort, you could imagine them in the 40s or 50s – at least her aunt used to say that some of the clothes in the wool shop looked like they’d been there since the war.

She had enough money to get an ice cream as well and had gone over in her head what there was to choose from but she couldn’t remember if the shop stocked Walls or Lyons Maid. She was veering towards a rum and raisin choc ice – something like that. Having something with rum in it was naughtier and so more of a treat. It automatically tasted nicer than just any old fruit or chocolate flavour.

Pausing outside the shop, Toby’s – they all had names like that, normally men’s names. The post office was Bob’s, the hair salon Marc’s Hair Fashions – she saw Veronica and Josie with a boy she didn’t recognise. The girls were sitting on charcoal-grey pavement bollards and the boy standing between them with a long twig. All concentrated on the ground, where the boy was prodding at something with the stick.

Not really wanting to, but too curious not to, Elisha sidled over to them, her left hand in her shorts pocket, rolling the coins around. When she got closer, she saw to her disgust that they were tormenting a big stag beetle that was stranded on its back, waving its six legs in the air in distress.

chopper‘Leave it alone!’ she called before she had time to think.

The boy glanced up at her and sneered scornfully, ‘Who says?’

‘We know her,’ piped up Josie, though her tone was also derisory.

‘It’s Elsie Goodman from school,’ Veronica added, deliberately getting the name wrong and making Josie snigger.

‘Elsie! She sounds like someone’s great grandma,’ exclaimed the horrible boy, delightedly.

Enraged and embarrassed, Elisha strode into their midst, reached down and picked the stag beetle up, much more easily than she could have hoped, thumb and forefinger on either side of its body, like her dad had shown her many times.

‘Oy!’ the boy objected, too late, his thin lips stretching and parting to reveal a mouthful of uneven teeth.

The beetle’s three captors were rather astonished that someone, a girl at that, would dare to just pick it up like that, heedless of pincers, unsqueamish about creepy-crawlies.

Elisha darted away from them, careful with the beetle, whose legs were still waving in insect panic. She released it into someone’s front flowerbed, watching it scuttle between antirrhinums in myriad colours, under pink hydrangea bushes into deep cover.

‘Stag beetles are getting rare. We should try to protect them.’

‘You’re so boring,’ retorted Josie, following Veronica’s petulant dismissive turn on her heel, as they walked away.

‘Hey, wait for me,’ called the boy, picking his Chopper up from where it had lain sprawled in an abandoned way, taking up the whole width of pavement. He scurried after the girls, wheeling the bike alongside.

Although she felt proud to have saved the beetle, the encounter with the trio had ruined her day somehow. She wished she were out with her friends somewhere and didn’t have to go home to the tenseness in the house. At the moment it felt a bit like waiting to go in at the dentist.

She didn’t even buy an ice cream in the end but walked home a different way, feeling a bit depressed. On this journey, she passed items of clothing, some on the pavement, others strewn across the grass verge – socks, boxer shorts, shirt – as if someone had performed an impromptu strip while walking back from the station the night before. Normally, she would have been intrigued by this, might have constructed a whole story around it, but now she barely gave the clothes a second glance, let alone much thought. She was wishing she’d had a clever comeback for Josie and Veronica – she could have called Veronica ‘Verucca’, as she and her friends often did to each other behind her back. Luke used to call Josephine ‘Poison Fiend’. At least thinking about this took her mind off her dad losing his job and all the other stuff.

When she neared home, she hesitated at the drive. Her dad was crouched down looking at the wounded car door, frowning deeply. ‘Uh oh,’ she thought and wondered if she could sneak by on the other side of the car without him seeing her. Probably not but worth a try.

Tucking the magazine under her arm, she bent down and edged towards the front door, hidden by the car. But parents seemed to have extra senses whenever you didn’t want them to.

‘Elisha,’ her dad called.

Mid-creep, she released her held breath, straightened up slowly and rather sheepishly. ‘Yes.’ She raised her eyebrows, acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be crawling along on the other side of the car from him.

The corners of his mouth twitched like he was restraining a smile but then he switched his face to a stern expression. ‘Have you seen what you’ve done to my car, young lady?’

There was the ‘young lady’ thing again – still, at least it wasn’t ‘little madam’. She was solemn and contrite. ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. It was an accident. The bike fell on it. I’ll really be more careful in the future. It’s just that sometimes I can’t park it. I think it’s safe and then it topples, all of a sudden. I am sorry.’ He let her babble run out. The magazine cover had got stuck to her arm. She peeled it away, frowning at the colourful imprint it left behind, and waited for him to speak.

‘All right. It’s okay, darling. I know you didn’t mean it. Anyway, it was already dented there.’

She ran round the car to hug him, looking past the hairs on his arm at the car door. Now she came to think of it, it was unlikely that her little bike could have caused such a lot of damage.

stagThat night she dreamt of the well – she was coming home from somewhere and there it stood, right where her house had been – it was huge. Awestruck, she stared up at it. The red bucket was in the drive, bigger than her dad’s car, rocking slightly back and forth like there was something inside it trying to get out. She began to get a little apprehensive. Whatever was inside was big and heavy enough to make the massive bucket rock. Maybe it would tip it over. Something appeared over the rim – it looked like a big black claw. She woke up, shivering with fright.

 

The Well, chapter 15

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15 The wisdom of wishing

It was the day after her dad’s company had folded and it had started off well, sunshine making all the colours outside bright and distinct. It was the kind of light that made you want to photograph everything because it all looked so good, so exhilarating and enchanting. But, even before Elisha had finished breakfast, the weather had changed. When she opened the back door to throw some crumbs out to the birds, the fresh coldness of the air took her breath away. She ran out to the lawn to dispose of the cake and breadcrumbs as fast as possible before dashing back inside and warming her fingertips on the top of the lounge radiator, which they had on to dry some clothes.

The sky began to darken, like it was a winter afternoon, the sun disappeared, the wind gathered strength to send the grey-white clouds racing along. A cruel sleeting rain lashed the house. Her dad always used to say, in a doom-laden voice, ‘It’s the end of the world’ on days like this, when the elements just seemed to completely lose their temper and gang up on everyone.

Elisha thought it would be a good day to clean up her room, like her mum was always begging her to do; and get together stuff she could put in the orange charity sack that came through the door yesterday morning. It would be collected in a couple of days’ time.

Trouble was, she found it hard to decide to throw something out. Clothes that were too small – yes, she could do that, and shoes – but she loved all her toys too much. And she would spend ages trying things on as well so that an hour passed with only a couple of tops put aside as definite candidates for the charity bag. To her delight, she caught sight of a skirt she hadn’t been able to find for ages – a purple velvet maxi that had been her favourite thing to wear last winter. It had come off its hanger and was languishing in a forlorn heap back at the bottom of the wardrobe behind the well.

She reached for it a couple of times without getting hold of it before finally clutching it with her fist and drawing it out, one side-waist-loop still attached to the groove on the hanger, lines of grey dust wherever a fold had been on the wardrobe base. She sneezed. With it came an old green M&S bag. Her mum kept old plastic bags to use in the bins so Elisha laid the skirt down on the bed while she began to fold the bag up to go in the big bottom kitchen drawer that already overflowed with surplus bags. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it actually able to shut. Even if closed, it seemed to dribble plastic bags like a big drooling mouth.

Holding the bag upside down, gripping it to her chest with her chin, she smoothed it down flat with her hands. As she did this, a slightly crumpled piece of paper drifted down to the dusky rose carpet. Folding the bag up quite small, she weighed it down with her money box on the windowsill. A brief look outside at the blue-grey pewter sky, the windblown trees and an old man fighting against the gale confirmed that staying indoors had been the right decision. Rain slashed its tracks across the windowpane and she could feel an icy draught even through the secondary glazing, more like midwinter than the end of summer.

She crossed back to the wardrobe, bent down and retrieved the scrap of paper, intending to chuck it straight in the bin. When she picked it up, however, an edge of it sliced deep into her index finger.

‘Ouch!’ she said aloud. Paper cuts were such a nuisance, she thought, sucking the finger and beginning to crush the paper into a ball with more venom than necessary. Suddenly, her hand cramped so she couldn’t grip it – pins and needles shot up her arm, like when she lay on it too long at night. Then a strange tingling began all over her body. She found herself unrolling the ball of paper. It wasn’t like she made a conscious decision to do it. Her fingers seemed to act on their own.

At first, seeing the scribbled lines on the creased, slightly torn paper remnant, she assumed it was a shopping list that had got left behind in the bag. But, looking closer, she realised it was a kind of verse. And it had a title, written in capitals and underlined rather shakily: THE WISDOM OF WISHING. Elisha drew a deep breath and sat down on the end of the bed, creasing up the edge of the dust-lined, purple skirt that she’d now forgotten all about.

It came back to her now. Aunt Jessie had given her the well in the M&S bag. This had been meant to come with it.

THE WISDOM OF WISHING

Wish no ill upon another

Wish for plenty

Not for plague.

Guard the secret

Never tell

Lest the telling

Break the spell.

Wish no evil

From the well.

One good turn begets another.

Hear the warning,

Heed the bell.

Demons dark will

Spring from hell.

Wish forward,

Never back.

Or things will turn black.

Before the wish is spent

There is time to repent.

Look into the bucket

And find the key

To turn things back

How they used to be.

 

Even when you do not sleep

What you sow

You’ll surely reap.

Ignore the rules

And here’s the deal –

A dream that’s shared

Can become real.

‘Almost like a set of instructions,’ she realised. ‘Why didn’t I see these before?’

The writing was oddly familiar – something similar to hers in it, like her best writing looked a bit like her mum’s; her mum’s looked a little like her gran’s and aunt’s – this looked kind of like her aunt’s, only even more old-fashioned. It was written in violet ink, quite faded, on thin, thin, cream paper, like for airmail letters, with a few smudges and stains on it.

She thought she could see something else and held the paper up to the light of the window – some kind of watermark – a design of, she couldn’t quite make it out, with all the creases and the writing – it looked like a bucket.

She read the verse through again, puzzling over its meanings, not much liking the sound of the dark demons from hell bit.

Could she tell Luke about this? He already knew about the well so what harm could it do? Why did everyone else have to be on holiday right when she needed them? Still, he’d be back in a few days – it would give her more time to think before deciding what to do.

Lying in bed that night, unable to sleep, trying to imagine sheep to count them. Why did people tell you to count sheep? They were meant to jump over a fence, she thought, but did sheep ever jump fences in real life?

It seemed her mind wouldn’t stop working. Worrying about wishes, unwishing, selfishness, praying for guidance.

laura-and-banditWhen she got to the 250th sheep (they were being rounded up in a pen by a sheepdog that looked like Bandit from Little House on the Prairie), she decided she might as well give up. Sitting up and settling her pillows behind her head, she drank a few gulps of slightly minty-tasting water from the toothbrush mug that she’d brought from the bathroom. It had stencils of dark-blue and turquoise fish on it. She’d left the lid with the four circular holes for toothbrush stems on the windowsill. Although thirsty, she hadn’t wanted to go downstairs for water – she always felt like someone might come up behind her. Or she imagined that, while she was down there, some intruder would get in and be hiding in her room when she got back to it. Even after a brief trip to the bathroom, she always had to check in the wardrobe and under the bed.

From her bedside-table drawer she pulled out ‘The wisdom of wishing’ and considered it thoughtfully. Some of it seemed to contradict itself. She wondered if ‘never tell’ meant she’d been wrong to tell Jas and Steph … maybe that was why it hadn’t worked while they were there. But she’d told Luke too – did that mean her wish for him wouldn’t come true?

She went through the poem or whatever it was, ticking and crossing things in her head. Well, she hadn’t broken the first rule – she hadn’t wished for anything bad to happen to anyone, though she’d been tempted to wish stuff about Veronica. And what about the wish about her father’s work? That had come true, only in an unfortunate way. Had that been wishing ill upon another? She hadn’t meant it to be.

The ‘wish for plenty, not for plague’ she didn’t really understand. Plague was a kind of disease they had in the Bible. Well, she’d wished away Luke’s cancer so that was good.

The next rule she’d definitely broken though. There was no getting round it. But she’d had wishes come true afterwards so maybe telling people only cancelled out one or two. And then …

One good turn … she began to feel incredibly sleepy the more she tried to focus her mind, to decipher the poem’s message. Her eyelids felt heavier and heavier. When she blinked she forgot to open them again for a while. On about the twentieth blink, she didn’t open them at all. She was asleep.

The next day, waking up quite late to the sound of a Hoover bumping against her bedroom door, she stretched and yawned, a little annoyed to be roused so rudely. Turning onto her front, she pulled both pillows over her head and clamped them down with her arms, breathing in cotton-polyester sheet, only recently put on so that it still had that nice, clean, washing-powder smell.

It was no good. The pillows didn’t block out the insistent droning of the Hoover, the draggy, sweepy sound of its back-and-forth movements, the banging of the edge of the brush on skirting boards and doors.

‘Da-ad!’ she protested.

Either he couldn’t hear her above the Hoover or, more likely, he’d decided it was time for her to get up and was deliberately making a racket outside her room. An early riser himself, he couldn’t see the attraction of a lie-in, the sheer luxurious feeling of seeing what time it was, not having to get up, being able to turn over and go back to sleep.

So she ended up being grumpy at breakfast, not that anybody really seemed to notice much. Her father was still vacuuming – she found it scary to look at him because he appeared so absorbed and intent on his task. It was like he was waging his own war on dust and dirt. Rarely did she see him so focused and aggressive.

She soon gave up sulking. There didn’t seem much point if no one actually noticed she was doing it. When her mum said she could go and get the TVTimes, she jumped at the chance to escape the stuffy, tense atmosphere of the house, where recriminations hung unvoiced in the air and ideas flared but were cold-watered out. Most of them in her head. All without a word being said.

 

The Well, chapter 14

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14 An idea of fun

waspSteph had come with them to the forest one year and ended up absolutely hating it. Phobic of wasps and spiders, she seemed to attract them wherever she went. Eating outside with her on the rickety, light, fold-up tables in the warm twilit evenings had been a nightmare because she’d started to scream every time a wasp got near her or the food. Once Elisha had clapped her hand over her mouth to stop her squealing. She could tell that, although her father was at first amused by Steph, he was by then getting a little impatient, especially with the screaming.

‘Stop waving your arms around. You’ll just antagonise it,’ warned Elisha, shaking her head at her dad who was rolling his eyes at all the drama.

‘I hate it here, I hate it,’ moaned Steph, through Elisha’s fingers. The wasp dive-bombed her again so that she panicked, tore her friend’s hand away, let out a high-pitched scream and ran back inside the green inner tent, zipping it up behind her.

The Goodmans all looked at each other and laughed for a minute before Elisha’s mum went in with a jam tart and some instant custard to cheer Steph up. Then it was quiet except for the sounds of the dusk — a low, reassuring humming, or maybe more like a ticking, like the forest breathing. Her dad said it was the sound of all the grasshoppers rubbing their back-legs together but Elisha thought that unlikely.

toilet-tentThey were camped quite a distance from any facilities so her dad had put up their own toilet tent. He always used to muck about and walk around inside it so that the tent looked like it was moving by itself. It had made both girls dizzy and breathless with laughter earlier, especially when he made funny sounds too so the tent seemed to walk and talk by itself. He was almost as good as the cut-price aliens on kids’ TV shows. This time he made it walk a little too far and stumbled into a ditch, nearly toppling into a load of gorse bushes before the girls ran over and righted him.

Unfortunately, the diet of instant food wasn’t what Steph was used to; and she’d had to go to the loo in the middle of the night. This was a bit of a palaver, especially as it was raining. It was always raining if you needed to go in the middle of the night — it was like an unwritten camping law. Like one of the house laws was that, as soon as you turned the light off and left a room, you immediately needed to go back in and find something tiny on the table in the dark.

The sound of the rain drumming steadily on the canvas made Elisha feel protected, all cosy and safe as she snuggled deep into her electric-blue sleeping bag with the neon-orange interior. The colours meant that it even looked warm.

It could be pitch black in the forest at night, a solid darkness you never got in town, with all the streetlights and cars and stuff. When she’d first experienced it, Elisha had found it spooky. But now she relished it. Breathing cool night air redolent of grass and trees and heather and mist — damp and fresh and earthy. Opening your eyes and not being able to see a thing. Sometimes she felt like her camp-bed was floating on a river … But Steph was still at the spooked-out stage and insisted on having a light on in the outer tent.

She heard her friend fumbling around for a torch and bumping into things, swearing under her breath, but just ignored it and tried to go back to sleep. Steph had to put on wellies, grumbling the whole time. And, once outside, Elisha heard her trip over a guy rope and yelp. Elisha had to stifle a giggle. Poor Steph.

But this was nothing compared to the ear-splitting, banshee-like scream that came from the toilet tent two minutes later. Her dad was up in seconds and out of the tent flap with a torch. She and her mum pushed themselves up on their elbows in their camp-beds, wondering what on earth could have happened now. Steph stumbled back in, mumbling something incoherent as she struggled out of Elisha’s yellow wellies and almost fell onto her bed, with such force and so unevenly it nearly collapsed under her. Elisha had tried to explain that you had to be gentle and careful with a camp bed. If you plonked yourself down on one end, the bed would catapult up into you.

‘What was it, hon?’ her mum asked, as her father strode in.

‘There was a hornet by the light in there,’ he explained. ‘And then a spider landed in her hair.’

‘Oh, poor Steph,’ said Elisha, looking across at her friend in sympathy and feeling rather guilty for having laughed. An encounter with a hornet and a spider would have made her scream too.

‘I’ll heat some milk for hot chocolate,’ her mum suggested, getting out of bed and pulling a long, ruby-coloured, woolly cardigan round her. Her dad got a carton of long-life semi-skimmed milk out of the cooler bag and started to shake it.

‘Oh goodie.’ Elisha went over to her friend. ‘It’s all right, Steph.’ She found the little red torch lighting up a long triangle of tartan blanket and switched it off.

Steph sat up and groaned. ‘I want to go home tomorrow. I don’t like camping.’

Elisha glanced anxiously at her father as he raised his eyebrows in exasperation. He was lighting a calor gas lamp to supplement the small one they were keeping on through the night for Steph.

‘It’ll be better tomorrow, you’ll see. It’s not going to rain tomorrow.’ She hugged her friend, stroking her hair over and over to comfort her, like her mum sometimes did for her when she was upset. ‘And we’re going to have hot chocolate now.’

‘I can’t stand it here another day,’ wailed Steph miserably. ‘It’s horrible. I don’t know how you could even call it a holiday.’

So it seemed camping wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun.

The Well, chapter 13

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13 All kinds of trouble

austin-maxi

She’d been riding her bike up and down the avenue for a long time, actually feeling quite proud of her growing prowess. Her mum had played badminton with her for a while but was spending the rest of the afternoon studying for a Spanish exam. Elisha turned the bike in ever-decreasing circles, amazed at how easy it was to manoeuvre once she’d got the hang of it. It was hard to imagine she’d ever been scared she might fall off a bike. Balancing was a cinch now but she still couldn’t take one hand off the handlebars. Luke used to tease her about it, showing off by cycling down the middle of the road with no hands at all. She experimentally lifted her left hand off but immediately put it back as she began to wobble.

          When her dad’s Austin Maxi turned into the avenue, she cycled up to greet him in the drive, jumping off the bike and resting it against the fence next to the car. Although she bounced over to him, delighted to see him home from work early, his expression was grim and he could barely raise a smile for her when she hugged him hello.

          He reached in and lifted a cardboard box off the backseat, grunting a little as if it were heavy and closing the car door with his foot.

          ‘Dad, do you want to watch me on my bike?’

          ‘Not now, darling.’

          Suddenly there was a crash and a clatter. She hadn’t parked her bike securely and the handlebars had twisted so that it overbalanced and fell against the car. She could never get the hang of parking it by resting a pedal on the kerb.

          Her father exploded. It wasn’t the bad words that shocked her so much as the violently angry tone of his voice and the flash of fire in his grey eyes. ‘You stupid little girl!’ he continued loudly. ‘Put your bike back in the shed before you do any more damage.’ But his voice softened slightly as he saw that Elisha had frozen in shock, her mouth open, without even trying to make an excuse.

          As he took the box and his briefcase into the house, she retrieved the miscreant bike and wheeled it sadly through the back gate to the shed. Why hadn’t she parked it somewhere else? She remembered regretfully how self-satisfied she’d been seconds before and her mum saying, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ She thought maybe she should make herself scarce for a bit so sat down, cross-legged, on the back lawn, wondering why her father was in such a bad mood, when he was home early, and it was such a beautiful sunny afternoon.

          Absentmindedly, she started to pull clumps of grass up with her fists, liking the crunchy sound it made and the fresh green smell. Then she realised she could potentially get into trouble for this too, so she started to push the handfuls of grass back down into the soil. She smoothed them over with her palms — there, her dad probably wouldn’t even notice when he mowed the lawn.

          The house threw a long shadow across the grass and soon she was sitting in this cool semi-darkness. A chill ran through her, making her shiver and puzzle if it wasn’t time for tea yet.

          Getting up, she moved out of the shadow’s reach into a patch of sunlight at the end of the garden. Here she put her arms out and spun round and round and round until she felt dizzy and toppled over on to her back, keeping her eyes closed for a minute. When she opened them, the sky and clouds and tree branches seemed to swing briefly, almost revolve, before steadying. She felt like her head was far away with the clouds, while her body kept contact with the solid ground.

          ‘Elisha!’ her mum called from the open kitchen window. ‘Come in for tea now.’ She sat up quickly, then came over all giddy, groaned and lay back down. ‘Elisha!’ She sat up again, feeling groggy. ‘And make sure you shut the back gate and bolt it too.’

          Elisha sighed and stumbled to her feet, brushing the grass and stuff off her shorts and the backs of her legs, where it had left an intricate patterned imprint. If only she hadn’t annoyed her father, he might have come and played badminton with her. Plus, he didn’t play as well as her mum so was easier to beat.

          She went through the back gate and out to the car to check on the damage, dividing her hair into two sections at the back as she went. Coming next to the car, she started to plait one side of her hair, rather inexpertly, as she gazed at the damage her pedal had done to the car door. The paint was all scraped off around a very slight dent.

          Oh no. It was worse than she’d thought. She almost wished she hadn’t checked — like it couldn’t be true if she hadn’t seen it. She didn’t want to know this. No wonder her dad was mad. And he hadn’t even seen it yet.

          He hadn’t seen it yet. Her brain began to work. So maybe she could wish it all undone. Maybe she could even go back to before he got home and this time she’d take her bike straight to the shed. But there was something nagging at her brain, like a bit of food that gets caught between your teeth — you can feel it with your tongue but can’t shift it or see it in the mirror. If she hadn’t wished for the bike, it wouldn’t have fallen on the car … What if the well’s wishes were cursed? And if so, what might happen to Luke and her wish for him?

          She heard her father call her name so went back into the passage by the side of the house, shutting and bolting the gate carefully behind her, trailing her hand in the yellow forsythia as she walked. Then she remembered something — her mother had asked her to do this the other evening as well; and she’d forgotten. That was when her bike had been stolen. Maybe if she had bolted the gate, the thieves wouldn’t have got into the back garden and seen the shed. Feeling guilty and ashamed, she entered the kitchen sheepishly, somehow imagining that her parents would be able to see through her and know it had all been her fault. Washing her hands at the incredibly water-stained stainless steel sink, she sighed dramatically, then dried them on a piece of kitchen towel with flower borders that she pulled off a roll on the wall.

          She slunk into the dining room and took her seat as if she hoped they wouldn’t notice her, hands seeking the security of cutlery, the mundane camouflage of teatime activity.

          ‘So you decided to join us then?’ her mum asked, handing the dish of instant mash potatoes with butter across to her.

smash          ‘Sorry.’ She didn’t dare mention the car but concentrated instead on the potato mash, the type advertised by the cute aliens, heaping some onto her plate next to the chicken leg and peas already there. Even focusing on her plate of food, she could sense the tension in the room; and assumed that it must be because of the car. But why didn’t they just shout at her and tell her off? Get it over with, for goodness’ sake.

          Glancing up again, while she chewed on some chicken, she caught her parents exchanging a questioning look, like neither knew what to say or do.

          ‘Ellie.’ Her father’s tone was unexpectedly calm and kind so that she was scared her punishment would be worse than she imagined — like no TV for a week and having to pay for the damage.

          She looked across at him a little nervously and drank some water, feeling her throat go suddenly dry and parched. ‘Yes, Dad.’

          ‘Something’s happened at work.’ He paused to sigh. ‘Well, basically, the company’s folded and we’re all out of a job.’ His wife put her hand over his on the floral vinyl tablecloth.

          ‘Don’t worry, hon. It’s not your fault. Something’ll come up, I’m sure.’

          Elisha was struggling to picture the company folding — she could see the big white sign with its blue italic writing being creased in the middle but that was as far as she got.

          ‘Can’t it get unfolded?’ she asked and was a little miffed when her mum giggled, although pleased and relieved that she’d made them both smile.

          ‘No, it means it’s run out of money, darling,’ her father explained.

          ‘So you don’t have to go back to work?’

          ‘I can’t go back, no.’

          Elisha didn’t really see the problem for the minute. ‘So we can go camping this summer after all?’ She jumped up excitedly but sat down again when they didn’t really react.

          ‘Your dad will be looking for another job.’ Her mum reached out and touched one of her half-made plaits. ‘What’s this meant to be?’

          ‘I was in the middle of doing it.’

          Her father was eating again now, not really as if he was enjoying it but more as though it were another task that had to be done.

          ‘In fact,’ her mum said, ‘I might go back to work, Elisha.  Mrs Fisher said they need dinner ladies at the school. What would you think about that?’

          ‘Beth, it doesn’t really matter what she thinks. Why ask her?’

          Her mother stood up beside her and started plaiting her hair for her. This always gave Elisha a lovely tingly feeling in her scalp.

          ‘I mean, a job’s a job. If I haven’t found anything by then, you’ll have to do it. You might have to even if I have.’

          ‘I know, darling.’ Her mother’s words were slow, deliberate and exasperated, in the way she had when she meant to say more than they did. Elisha had the feeling she was speaking more in the faces she was making over her head and craned her neck up to see. But it was too late: she’d missed her mum’s expression.

          ‘Does it mean we won’t have any money?’

          ‘Well, we won’t have as much for a while.’

          Her father had eaten all he could and pushed his plate away, silently. It seemed as though he didn’t want any more part in the conversation either.

          Her plaits were finished and so was her food. She thought she’d better not ask if there was any butterscotch Angel Delight for afters, let alone mention the car door, even though she wanted to say sorry. It didn’t seem to matter much now.

          For a while, they all retreated into their own thoughts. And Elisha’s weren’t pleasant. Had her wish about her father having more time off made him lose his job? Her face flushed hot with guilt — she felt her cheeks with the palms of her hands — they were burning. Like the time she’d tucked her school tunic into her navy-blue knickers at the back and hadn’t realised until she went past Josie, Veronica and some boys who’d started pointing at her and laughing.

          But then she also felt secretly pleased. It meant she’d see more of her dad; and they might be able to go camping. He always said it was a cheap way to holiday. Her friends weren’t all that impressed with it. Jasmine said she’d rather sell all the camping gear to pay for a few nights at a hotel or a villa. She said she and her mum liked their ‘home comforts’ too much to go roughing it in a field somewhere.

The Well, chapter 12

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12 Killing time

new-forest

The next day, unfortunately, just as they’d renewed their friendship, Luke went on holiday. Jasmine and Stephanie were about to go away too. Their families were sharing a villa in Benidorm for two weeks. Elisha had no idea where that was, somewhere on the continent. After a few days, she began to feel lonely and left behind. Usually, the Goodmans went camping to the New Forest or somewhere but this summer her dad only had a few days off. It seemed so unfair.

Her dreams, thankfully, had returned to normal but, although relieved at this, her days were so boring that she also woke each morning with a slight nagging prod of disappointment.

Cats had dreams. You could watch their tails twitch; they made noises and moved their paws as if chasing mice. Her mum said cats couldn’t tell the difference between an experience in a dream and one that had actually happened. She was beginning to know how they felt and wondered why humans were different – or if in fact they always were. Maybe sometimes your dreams could be more real than real life and your everyday existence the fantasy.

The well had sat unused since the dream incident. The truth was, she felt a bit wary of it now and its power to catapult her into other worlds, where she couldn’t control anything and where what happened actually happened, even if she was sure it could only have been a dream. She remembered all the trouble Alice had got into when she fell down the rabbit hole.

The other thing was that she was a bit worried she might only be granted a certain number of wishes and that these were nearly all used up. Maybe that was what had happened to Aunt Jessie so she couldn’t wish herself out of the old people’s home.

nesquikBut her summer was turning so dreary and she felt so bored that she had to do something about it. She’d spent the entire morning chasing flies out of the kitchen with a multi-coloured, long-handled feather duster. She had used up the last of the pink Nesquik from the tin, along with the remainder of the milk.

She decided to use a 10p piece this time, fumbling it out of a little beaded purse and taking a deep breath. She frowned, noticing that the well had got rather dusty. When she ran her finger round the wall, it collected an ashen grey residue, so she got her face down to the same level as the model on the bed and blew at it hard to send dust motes swirling up into the sunlit air. The airborne dust tickled her nose and, despite her pinching it between thumb and forefinger, in the end she sneezed violently and heard a far-off ‘Bless you!’ from her mum downstairs. She blew on the well a few more times, careful now to hold a tissue across her nostrils, before she was satisfied with the result.

tentsThen, dropping the substantial silver coin over the rim of the well, she closed her eyes and wished aloud: ‘I wish Dad could have more time off this summer.’

A cold blast of air from the well blew her hair back and spattered her face with moisture. A little afraid to look, she nervously forced her face forward and peeped in, squeezing her eyes almost shut so that she was squinting. The 10p piece lay golden, and somehow reassuring, on the ceramic bottom of the well. Breathing a sigh of relief and opening her eyes fully, she pulled it out, before slotting it into her money box. This seemed the safest place to hide her growing hoard of golden coins. No one but her would ever look in it.

Packing the well securely away into a back corner of the wardrobe, Elisha wondered how soon it would be before her wish would come true. Hopefully it would be in time for them to go away somewhere as a family.

She loved where they normally camped in the forest. It was near a shallow branch of the river where you could paddle and splash or fish for tadpoles or simply stretch out on their patterned li-lo and look at the sky. You could rope-swing across the water further up and play hide-and-seek along the riverbanks or in the gorse bushes. Even when it rained, there was stuff to do — she had colouring books and a huge set of felt-tip pens in masses of colours. Or, if the weather was really bad, you could float the yellow plastic camping plates in the gigantic puddles, wade around in Wellington boots and pac-a-macs, sit under the flysheet and watch other people get wet or her dad dig a trench around the tent to stop it from flooding, like it was a castle with a moat. The food was great too — instant mash and instant tea, sausages and beans and chocolate, orangeade and Ribena. Her dad might even share some of the posher treats he usually kept to himself, Munchies, Mintolas or Old English Spangles. No one ever seemed to mind if you ate too much of the wrong thing. You could drop a biscuit or spill some milk and it didn’t matter. No one worried about cleaning it up later.

catweazleShe didn’t really miss the TV as much as she always thought she would. Blue Peter and Magpie were boring. Especially if you lived in a house that never had ‘sticky-back paper’ or old washing up liquid bottles to make stuff out of. She could similarly do without repeats of Catweazle and The Last of the Mohicans, two awful shows she couldn’t understand.

Sometimes you met people you’d met before, which was good — it was like having instant friends too. Otherwise, she was shy and it took her a while to get to know the other children. Her mother always joked that she’d be miserable all holiday, then make a friend on the last day but one and not want to leave. It was kind of true: it did always seem to happen like that.

Once she’d got to know a girl called Tabitha, which sounded to Elisha like a cat’s name rather than a person’s. Tabitha had green eyes like a cat too but she’d also been very bossy so that in the end Elisha got fed up with her and hid inside the tent when she came round to collect her for a game, in which Tabitha was always the chief and Elisha the indian, the doctor to Elisha’s patient or the queen to Elisha’s lady-in-waiting.

Another time, a boy called Sean appeared from nowhere and adopted them as his family, arriving at breakfast time and eating with them, playing and hanging around all day before disappearing shortly after tea. Elisha had begun to feel jealous of him when her dad started teaching him how to tie various knots for cub scouts. But one day he didn’t come back. She guessed his parents must have gone home. And after that she missed him and wished he would come round again. The photos from that summer always made them laugh, as Sean had somehow managed to get into every single one — Sean with mum by the stove, Sean with Elisha and the horse, Sean fishing with her and her dad. There was even one of Sean by himself, leaning over and cooking something on their stove, frowning with an air of intense concentration and responsibility.mohicans

She lay on the bed and daydreamed about their trip. She hoped the weather would be fine and dry as otherwise it could be a lot of work for her dad; and she wanted him to enjoy it. She hoped they would meet people they already knew, to spare her the mammoth task of getting to know new kids.

Her mum didn’t like camping so much, especially at the sites with minimal facilities that dad preferred. Poor mum would often end up making the meals and doing the washing up so it wasn’t that much of a holiday for her. Elisha resolved to help her more if they got to go this year. This made her feel virtuous in advance.

So when her mum called her down to lay the table for lunch, she didn’t pretend she hadn’t heard (as she sometimes did) but jumped up promptly and ran down the stairs. Her stomach was fluttery with that unsettled feeling when she expected something momentous to happen any minute. But nothing did. At least not until later.

 

The Well, new chapter 11

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Sorry, posted chapters in wrong order …

11 Dream share

plimsolesShe came up, gasping and spluttering, and then spluttered more with shock to find herself in the bath at home. Looking around in astonishment, there was no chamber, no pool, no Luke. But it had been so real. She shook her head several times and pinched herself. Getting out of the bath, she shrugged off the unwieldy heavy clothing and wrapped herself in a big, multicoloured beach towel while sitting on the edge of the tub to pull off her plimsoles and socks, chucking them over by the towel rail, where she’d left the clothes.

Her mother came in. ‘You’ve been a long time, young lady.’ She picked up Elisha’s clothes from the towel rail, then made a strange face and dropped them on the floor. ‘What on earth have you been doing, Elisha? These are soaking wet!’

Elisha looked over at her plimsoles, which were making a puddle on the patterned linoleum. ‘And your shoes too! Did you get into the bath before getting undressed? Honestly, what a mess. Wring everything out and bring it down to the kitchen. All I need is another trip to the launderette! And clear this place up or there’ll be hell to pay, you little madam.’ Her mother stormed furiously out. She sometimes called Elisha ‘young lady’ as a joke but used ‘little madam’ when she was really in trouble.

Elisha sighed and put her head back against the wall. She didn’t know any more what was real and what was not and was starting to wish she’d never set eyes on the magic wishing well.

A few minutes later, while she was still pondering on the peculiar dream episode, her mum shouted up the stairs: ‘Elisha!’

She finished drying herself, and pulled her mint-green towelling robe round her as she opened the bathroom door.

‘Yes, Mum?’

There’s someone here to see you. Come down now and you can mop the bathroom later.’

Feeling vaguely apprehensive, she went down rather hesitantly, in her Mum’s pink flip-flops from under the basin.

It was Luke, looking at her a bit oddly before smiling. ‘Did you wake up in the bath too?’

She nodded and led him into the lounge, struggling a bit to control the oversize flip-flops, plonking herself down on the sofa. His hair was wet, not as thick yet as it had been in … her dream, whatever it had been. And his eyes were bright and excited.

‘Did we have the same dream?’ she wondered aloud.

‘Was it a dream though?’ he queried.

These musings were interrupted by Elisha’s mother, who brought in two glasses of milk and a plate of Garibaldi and Bourbon biscuits. ‘I’m glad to see you two are friends again,’ she said, as she went back into the hall.

‘It must have been a dream,’ Elisha spoke adamantly to convince herself. ‘I’ve been having very weird dreams lately. Plus, I can’t swim in real life.’

‘You still haven’t learnt to swim? So why did you come after me? You could have drowned.’ Luke took a bite of chocolate biscuit while she nibbled round the edges of one before sucking out some of the filling. She didn’t answer so he continued: ‘You must have pulled me into one of your dreams. I mean, I’ve never seen a well like that. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a well at all. That means it can’t be coming from my subconscious.’

‘From your what?’ She dunked a Garibaldi into her milk, then bit off the wet bit.

‘That’s how my Dad explains dreams. He says it’s like your mind’s an adding machine storing information all day long and at night it sorts it all out and totals it up properly. While it’s doing that, all these things become your dreams.’

‘Oh. Then I think you’d better come up to my bedroom a minute.’

His eyes widened; he was intrigued. Elisha noticed that they’d lost that dull hopelessness she’d seen in them on the last day of school. In fact, Luke no longer looked resigned and depressed. He was energised, enthusiastic, more like he used to be before, when they were younger and he was fun to play with.garibaldi

Elisha’s mother was reading a paper in the kitchen when she heard them thunder up the stairs.

The well was on the desk where she’d left it, looking innocent and stationary.

‘Wow,’ Luke breathed. ‘It’s like a miniature version of the one in my dream.’

‘Yeah.’ She sat down and watched him touch it carefully, reverently, marvelling at the detail, the colour and its similarity to the one he’d climbed into.

‘Something creepy’s happening, isn’t it?’ He looked across at her, eyebrows raised.

‘Yes. It’s been happening for a while. It’s a magic well, you see, that my Aunt Jessie gave me.’ She thought the fact that Luke had shared her dream must mean she could tell him the secret.

‘Whoah.’ He was silent a minute or two, taking this in, dismissing disbelief. ‘So what can it do?’

‘It might sound stupid but … it grants wishes.’

‘Hold on, what’s this?’ He’d found the gold 5p. The well had let him find it. Elisha shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘You see.’ She no longer felt uneasy being with Luke. Since she’d gone into the pool after him, she felt different. She even found his presence reassuring.

‘Will it …’ he stopped to gulp in some air, suddenly breathless with the hope in his chest. ‘Can it … make me well?’ His voice faltered and his gaze transferred from the well to her face, his eyes large and solemn.

‘I already wished that.’ But she felt a bit bad that it had taken her so long to think of doing so.

He sat down next to her. ‘You have? And there I was thinking you were a fairweather friend. And you came into the pool after me … .’ He became lost for words.

‘I am a fairweather friend.’ She sighed, feeling the weight of this truth, shouldering the guilt for abandoning him.

‘I knew you’d come though.’

‘How did you know? I didn’t even know I would.’

‘Do you two want this milk and stuff?’ called her Mum up the stairs.

They looked at each other briefly, then decided as one and charged down the stairs together.

The Well, chapter 10

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10 Into the well

green-cross-codeShe leant over the side of the well, remembering the smell from her dream, holding on to the top of the bricks. A small hand closed over her left one and her eyes followed the arm upwards to see Luke. He was tanned and healthy, his cheeks red and eyes bright, brown hair glossy and thick again. ‘Shall we go in?’ he asked, nodding at the well.

‘What? How on earth do you think … ?’ but she stopped because he was using both hands to throw a rope ladder over into the well. So that answered the how.

‘Why would we want … ?’

‘Don’t you want to see what’s inside it?’

He was tugging on the ladder to make sure it was secure. This end of it seemed to be fastened down into the ground with thick metal pegs, bigger than the ones they used on the tent ropes when camping. Elisha had always imagined the inside would be wet brick and cold, deep water, like with an ordinary well. She had no real desire to check it out for herself.

‘I’ll go first if you promise not to kick my head.’ He already had one leg over the wall. It was all going too quickly for Elisha, like someone had speeded up a cine film of them. She wanted to yell ‘Stop!’ but was ashamed to be such a wimp when Luke showed no fear at all. So she found herself following him down the well, descending the rope ladder slowly and carefully, conscious of his fast, excited breathing below her.

Once they were a few feet down, it got very dark and rather cold. Like caves could be cold in the summertime when you wished you hadn’t gone in in just a t-shirt and shorts but had listened to your parents and brought your pullover from the car. She started to shiver and wish she were climbing back up.

‘Come on, Elisha.’ Luke’s voice echoed a couple of times off the shaft. ‘Wow,’ he said quietly, ‘did you hear that?’

‘I’m coming.’ She started moving again, but put one foot down carefully to join the other on a new rung, while he was skipping this stage and proceeding very fast, foot over foot.

‘You’re miles behind now,’ he called and the echo went round Elisha’s head, making her feel dizzy. It was pitch black in the well now. When she looked up, she could just see a tiny circle of light high above her. Why oh why did she agree to this? She peered downwards but couldn’t make Luke out any more and started to panic.

‘Luke!’ Her own voice came back at her, somehow more pathetically, so that she felt stupid. But he didn’t answer, so the feeling of panic grew. It was swelling up inside her and she couldn’t stop it. Something hairy and spidery ran across her hand and she screamed. Then she felt angry with Luke for abandoning her.

‘Luke! Where are you?’ She tried to speed up and suddenly she was knee-deep in freezing cold water, which made her gasp. Hm, exactly as she’d imagined after all.

‘Up here, up here, Ellie.’ Luke’s voice was hyper and breathless.

Her head jerked upwards. So fast that she felt that sharp twinge in her neck because the brain signal hadn’t got through in time again. She really didn’t like that feeling.

Tiredness washed over her, like it was creeping up from the water. She pulled her feet up with quite some effort, sighing. They were almost numb with cold.

‘Come on!’ yelled Luke from somewhere above her, but further away than before.

She started to climb, her legs heavy so that she had to drag them like dead weights.

‘Are you coming or what?’

She made a face at the bricks in front of her. ‘Okay. But I can’t see where you are.’

‘There’s an opening a few feet up from you, just to the right of the ladder.’

After a minute she saw Luke’s head seeming to pop out of the wall towards her and yelped with surprise.

‘Through here, see. It’s quite a small opening but it widens out. It’s like a tunnel, you’ll see.’ He took her hand to help her up to the hole. The rope ladder swung unexpectedly and she had to stop herself from screaming.

Determined to be brave, she said, ‘Move out of the way and I’ll get in myself.’

‘Okay.’ He retreated out of sight.

She managed to get a good hold inside the hole with her right hand first, leaning across and then found it relatively easy to pull herself up. It was like she was boosted somehow from underneath or like her body had turned very light and buoyant. Normally in her dreams she could float-walk and dance around, a foot or two off the ground, like the people in the Cookeen commercial. She could just make Luke out by the whites of his eyes and teeth, because he was grinning.

‘What an adventure!’ he breathed, seemingly awestruck by the fact that they’d climbed down the inside of a freezing cold old well and discovered some manky tunnel.

‘Yeah,’ she said, rather sarcastically. ‘Well, let’s see what’s down here then.’

But she let him go ahead of her in case of spider webs.

‘Ugh!’ he exclaimed and recoiled into her, having hit one. They had to feel their way along on their hands and knees for a bit. But suddenly the area seemed to be opening out into a kind of chamber.

Elisha became aware of an eerie blue light and blinked a couple of times trying to adjust to it. The walls around them were polished dark rock, worn smooth by something, maybe water, over many years. The blue light was coming from a large, roundish pool roughly in the centre of the chamber. They could hear the gentle sound of tiny waves lapping its edges. Luke took her hand and she grasped his gratefully. They were both drawn to the serenity and glow of the blue pool, approaching it without saying a word to each other, as if no other course of action were possible.

A slow dripping from a number of stalactites above the pool was what agitated the still water into life, creating the ripples that reached the shore, the gentle hypnotic sound they could hear. Elisha gazed into the sapphire water that also seemed to be light, feeling suddenly giddy and cold.

‘What makes it so bright?’ Luke whispered, hushed by the strange calmness.

‘I don’t know.’ Elisha shuddered a little, feeling a chill run down her spine, also in awe, like they’d run headlong and clattering into a vast cathedral and found people praying. ‘I think we should go back.’ But when she looked around, the chamber walls were solid rock; there was no tunnel; it had disappeared.

‘I think we should go on.’ Luke felt the water with his hand, exclaimed, ‘It’s warm, Elisha!’ before stepping into the pool. She was sure there must be some Green Cross Code for stepping into strange pools that he wasn’t paying attention to.

She didn’t even have time to tell him the tunnel was gone. She reached out a hand to grab him but he moved further in so that she nearly overbalanced herself. The water was getting deeper around him. ‘Luke! Stop! Come back!’ she called, as he waded out of her reach.

And he went on, smiling calmly back at her, almost soothingly, a mischievous glint in his eyes, tilting his head as if to taunt her, till the water was over his head and he was gone.

She sobbed a minute, breathlessly, then realised that she had to follow him, no matter how scared she was — she had to get him back. But she couldn’t swim — she’d have to stay close to the edge, duck her head under and see if she could reach him. While her brain was telling her this, she found herself taking a deep breath and closing her eyes before letting herself fall forward into the water.

He was right — it was warm, like a tepid bath. Opening her eyes again, she was momentarily blinded by the light, but then saw Luke ahead of her. He seemed peaceful, unconscious, inert.

The water didn’t make her eyes sting like it did in the swimming baths. She found herself swimming towards him. She could normally swim easily in her dreams but this wasn’t like that. It was really hard, her clothes and shoes like heavy stones she had to tow, the effort of holding her breath making her chest ache. Catching him under the armpits, her temples beginning to pound, she used all her might to hoist him, to shove them both up towards the air, kicking hard with her feet. He surfaced moments before her.