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1 The secret present


Later it would seem strange that a day that had begun so ordinarily, holding so little promise of excitement or adventure, should have ended up being the day that would change things forever.

Even though it was Sunday, Elisha wasn’t looking forward to the afternoon at all. It seemed a shame that on such a gloriously sunny day, she probably wouldn’t be able to play outside because it was their turn to visit Great Aunt Jessie.

Aunt Jessie was very old, maybe 90 or 100, and her grandmother’s older sister. She’d had a heart attack a year before and, although she’d recovered well, Elisha’s mum still worried about her.

‘She’s much frailer than she looks,’ Mrs Goodman told her husband, while packing up things to take into a large bag of white woven straw. Elisha’s father just snorted in response.

Elisha tried to snort too, copying him, but hers was a pale imitation. His brown eyes twinkled as they exchanged glances.

‘Don’t encourage him, Ellie,’ warned her mum. ‘One day you’ll both be old and maybe no one will want to go and visit you … ‘

Elisha giggled. She couldn’t imagine being old but she always liked it when she and her dad clubbed together to tease her mum. He felt more like an older brother then.

Skipping down the garden path, she hovered by the car door, waiting for her dad to unlock it. He had to get in first before reaching across to lift up the little knobs by the windows on each of their doors. It was a half-hour drive in their little Austin Maxi, which was the exact colour of the gypsy tart you had for afters at school, and she hoped she wouldn’t be sick. Sometimes she felt very ill in the car. But there was no point taking a tablet now as it might take twenty minutes to work. She liked the tin the Avomine™ came in – it was slim, green and yellow, with a slide-off lid – but she hated having to swallow the pills, even though they were tiny.

Aunt Jessie lived in an old people’s home about ten miles away where everything was painted in cream, beige and a rusty orange colour that Elisha’s mother called ‘burnt umber’.

Elisha looked at the corridor walls as they walked along to the day room and thought her mother probably meant amber, as that was a kind of orange, the type in the middle in traffic lights.

There were lots of old people in the day room, watching the colour TV or playing cards or talking. Some of them were in wheelchairs but mostly they sat in big easy-chairs with polished wooden arms. Elisha’s father said some of these chairs had loos underneath them, ‘in case of accidents’. He laughed when Elisha wrinkled her nose at this, putting her head on one side to see if she could spot any of the giveaway white plastic bottoms.

She always wondered what the day room turned into at night.

She couldn’t see her aunt at first and just followed her mum’s khaki gabardine raincoat, trying not to look at the old women in cardigans knitting grandchildren’s clothes in garish light greens and sickly pinks or the old bald man with the thick-lensed spectacles that made his eyes look huge. She could hear wheezy breathing and smell stale cigar smoke as another old man’s sleeve brushed her hair in passing.

But then she saw Aunt Jessie, plump and cheerful, sitting on a straight ordinary chair, reading a book at a table. Elisha felt bad. It was mean not to want to visit Aunt Jessie because the old lady seemed to enjoy seeing them so much.

walnut-whipHer hair was snow-white against a red-cheeked face; and she beamed all over to see her relatives, setting aside her large-print romance from the mobile library.

‘Oh, I’m so glad you could make it!’ she said, as if they’d fought through a raging gale outside to get there. ‘I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all week. Especially my little Elisha.’ Elisha was hugged to her aunt’s big bosom, which smelt of clean washing mixed with lavender. Her mother and father started to talk to Jessie, as they unloaded magazines, boring ones like Woman’s Realm and Women’s Weekly, satsumas, Walnut Whips (her aunt’s favourite), a box of Milk Tray (which Elisha hoped her aunt would open straight away) and some bubble bath (one of the pink bottles from Avon, shaped like the bubbles were trying to break out on each side) from the straw bag.

It seemed a bit unfair that in this way her dad took half the credit for the gifts when he’d actually had no hand in acquiring, collecting or packing them.

‘Oh, you really shouldn’t have,’ said Aunt Jessie, releasing Elisha from the clench, fingering all the goodies. ‘These are splendid. You mustn’t spoil me like this.’

Elisha got a white pear drop out of the little white paper bag her Mum handed her, inhaling the nail-varnish smell of it before popping it into her mouth and wandering over to the window where the sun shone brightly on a beautiful garden. Some of the residents tended it, her mother said, and they did a very good job. Aunt Jessie always said it was better than Kew Gardens but Elisha didn’t know what that was. It sounded like you had to wait in line to get in.

This garden was pretty though, with irises, hydrangeas, roses and hollyhocks and a bird-feeder under frenzied sparrow attack. Sighing, she turned her gaze back into the room and looked up at the big wall clock, trying to tell the time.

The heating was turned up too high in the day room and none of the windows was open. It was much too stuffy. Elisha longed to escape into the garden and play – but she was stuck inside with mum and dad and her aunt and lots of old people. It wasn’t fair. Returning briefly to the group, she delved in her mum’s bag and got out a bottle of Cresta. She shook it up as surreptitiously as she could so that when she opened it, it fizzed out over her hands. She imagined it to be Babycham, the height of grownup sophistication. ‘It’s frothy, man,’ she quoted the advert. It was just as nice as cream soda too.

cresta‘Careful, sweetie,’ admonished her great-aunt, pursing her lips. Elisha just nodded, licked the spillage up from her fingers and running to try the vacant easy-chairs out, sitting in one and then another, dashing round and bumping into things till she felt hot and tired out, and till the old men frowned at her and tutted to themselves. Eyes back on the clock, she saw that the hour hand had finally crept round the circle.

‘Elisha darling,’ called her mother. ‘Aunt Jessie wants to speak to you.’

Sulkily, Elisha turned back to the group. Her mother pulled her over to them, smoothing down her hair. Her brown hair was very flyaway and static, sticking out untidily from her head. She wished she had hair more like her mother’s, which was a honey-blonde colour, helped by a box of dye from the chemist in the high street. It was fun searching out the reduced ones on the shelves at the back.

Everything about her mum seemed to match – her Outdoor Girl coral lipstick, really more of a tangerine colour, from a green plastic tube, the orange, brown and white swirl patterns on her nylon minidress, her white vinyl boots and American Tan tights.

In fact, she wished that she looked more like her mum altogether – the delicate features, hazel eyes, upturned nose, generous mouth – she thought her mum was the prettiest mum in the world. She sometimes used to copy her and smear Vaseline on her dark eyelashes before going out.

But now she whined, ‘Don’t, Mummy’ and squirmed away from her grasp.

‘Come to my room, child,’ said Great-Aunt Jessie. ‘I’ve got a secret present to give you.’ She stood up, suddenly important.

bubble-bathElisha was excited by both those words – ‘secret’ and ‘present’ – she loved surprise gifts and secrets even more. So she more than dutifully followed her aunt through the corridors to her small room, also painted burnt umber and beige. There was a rusty-colour bedspread and some rust and cream striped curtains. Elisha didn’t like the room much – it was too dark – but it smelt nice. It smelt of the Parma Violets Aunt Jessie always ate and gave her. They were proper grownup sweets that smelt like perfume. She wondered if her aunt had collected some more beads for her to swap with friends in the lunch hour.

‘This is a very special present, Elisha, and you must be careful with it.’

Elisha nodded gravely as her aunt produced a dark-green M&S plastic bag. It certainly didn’t look special, she thought. It was probably a boring sweater or something, something in those very bright, Battenburg-cake colours the old ladies in the day room were knitting with. But maybe it was an Easter egg – that would be ‘eggscellent’.

Aunt Jessie breathed heavily as she pushed down the bag sides to reveal a small blue cardboard box, before lifting it out on to the bed beside her, next to Elisha. This looked more intriguing and, in her impatience to see what was inside, Elisha almost pushed her aunt’s hands out of the way before stopping herself.

‘Inside this box is a magic wishing well,’ the old lady said, lifting the flaps and dipping her hands in. ‘It’s always given to the youngest girl in the family. My great-grandmother gave it to me before she died. Now I’m getting old so I’m giving it to you. Soon you will be its keeper. When you’re very old, you’ll have to give it to your youngest girl relative, even if she’s only a baby, when you get the sign.’

Elisha’s eyes were big and round as her aunt drew out the most amazing model well she’d ever seen. Well, it was the only one she’d ever seen actually but still it was perfect – wonderfully detailed and coloured, even with a little red bucket ready to go down, hung on a delicate gold-coloured chain.

She put out her hands to the well, as if touching it to see if it were real. It almost seemed to glow slightly in the dim room. There was a word for that – phosphorescent or luminous – one of those. In Elisha’s book, anything luminous was automatically magical and special.

‘If you drop a coin into it, it turns into gold and the well will grant your wish,’ said her aunt, solemn but kindly.

This unlikely claim distracted Elisha from the beauty of the well. Scornfully, she sneered, ‘Wells can’t turn stuff into gold.’ While at the same time her heart did a little jump and she hoped it was true.

Her aunt smiled and seemed very wise. ‘This one can. This is a different kind of well.’

‘Hmph,’ went Elisha, exactly as her mum did when she didn’t believe something Elisha had said.

‘Well, once you’ve tried it, maybe you’ll believe me,’ said Aunt Jessie, turning to the door just as there was a knock. She seemed like she wanted to say more but now couldn’t, just having time to whisper, ‘Remember now – it’s our secret.’

Elisha’s parents came in, a bit apologetically. ‘Time to go now, darling. Oh, what’s Aunt Jessie given you? Aren’t you a lucky girl?’

‘Goodbye, sweetheart.’ Her aunt gave her a hug and kiss, clasping her to her and saying, ‘Be generous with your wishes. Try not to be selfish.’

‘Thanks, Auntie,’ said Elisha, earning a nod of approval from her mother, then pulling away and packing the well up quickly in case her aunt changed her mind.

And when they left a few minutes later, she insisted on carrying the green plastic bag herself even though it was a bit heavy.

She knew it was stupid but all the way back in the car she couldn’t help thinking of things she could wish for. Her eyes lit up at the thought of a new bike. But of course the wishing bit couldn’t really work. If it did, Aunt Jessie wouldn’t be in that horrible home. Maybe she wouldn’t even be old.