2 A first wish
At home in her bedroom she carefully got the well out of the bag and box, setting it down on the table. She walked around it, examining every detail. Considering it must be pretty old, it looked brand new, all the colours very bright and none of the edges chipped.
There was no water in it, of course, or it would have gone everywhere, and it was disappointingly shallow. Oh well, she had better try it anyway. Getting her black Lloyds Bank horse’s head money box down from the windowsill, she delved in the back of it for a new halfpenny. These were much smaller than in old money but they no longer had the pretty boat on the back. She would miss the old coins, especially the brilliant golden threepenny bit with its portcullis and its twelve edges. Holding her breath, she dropped the tiny bright copper coin into the well. It clattered as it landed but otherwise didn’t change. Frowning, Elisha decided to make a wish anyway. She closed her eyes tightly.
‘I wish for a new bike, better than Veronica Atkins’s one,’ she recited solemnly, with both hands round the well.
She waited for a few seconds, hoping to hear a thud as the bike landed beside her. Silence. She opened one eye slightly and peered round the room. No sign of anything.
Perhaps she should be holding the coin. She stuck her hand into the well and rested her fingertip on the halfpenny. Closing her eyes again, she said, ‘Please, I wish for a new bike better than Veronica Atkins’s one, please.’
When she opened her eyes the room was just the same and no new bike had appeared.
Auntie Jessie had been fibbing. And she had fallen for it. Now she felt stupid. First, she thought that the old lady must be having a right laugh but then remembered that her great-aunt had never been anything but kind. Surely she wouldn’t lie to her? She decided that Jessie must be losing her marbles.
Elisha’s mother came in then to get her school clothes ready for the next day. But the little girl couldn’t stop thinking about the well, which continued to glow slightly in the dark, as if taunting her with a power she couldn’t unleash. She was still thinking about it when the phone rang that night.
Her mother answered it straight away even though Elisha’s digital clock said it was 1.30 in the morning. The phone in her parents’ room was on the bedside cabinet right next to her mum’s head. Elisha started wondering who could be ringing at such a time but then fell asleep quite suddenly in the middle of a thought.
When her alarm woke her the next morning she remembered her last dream vividly. In it she and her Aunt Jessie were in a garden quite similar to that of the old people’s home but not quite the same, much bigger, like it stretched for miles around them. It was very sunny but the garden was brown and white, like an old postcard. She and her aunt were walking and holding hands. Her aunt said, ‘See, this is better than Kew Gardens, isn’t it?’
And Elisha was just about to confess that she didn’t know what Kew Gardens was when they rounded a corner to find themselves opposite the well. It was a life-size replica of the model well and in mind-blowing colour, which made it stand out from the rest of the garden as if proclaiming itself the only thing that wasn’t a dream.
And Elisha had to admit that, whatever Kew Gardens was like, this had to be better. She had never seen anything so wonderful.
They walked right up to the well and looked down into it. The red bucket was by the side, half full of water. Its chain wasn’t pristine and gold, like the one on the model, but a blackened silver colour, with rust patches on it. The well itself was dark and deep. It smelt of very cold water. As she leant on the bricks, the ones on the outside were warm from the sun but the ones on the inside were cold and a little damp. A little further away from the rim, she could see that they were coated in slimy dark-green stuff. Elisha squinted down into it but couldn’t see the bottom. And when she looked up again, she felt dizzy and unsteady.
Her aunt was smiling at her as if to say, ‘There, you see.’ Picking up a pebble, Elisha dropped it into the well. There was a short pause before she heard it hit the water with a tiny, faraway, echoey plop.
Aunt Jessie beckoned her over to the bucket. When Elisha looked in she saw the reflection of her aunt’s face in the water. But that was funny, she was the one looking into it …
Confused, she glanced back across at her aunt. But Aunt Jessie was no longer there. Instead there was a little girl who looked a lot like Elisha but was dressed completely differently, long brown hair tied back with a blue ribbon in a neat bow, a pretty, old-fashioned white dress with a blue sash at the waist. The girl smiled, waved and ran off.
Elisha grasped the bucket, breathing a little harder, and looked at her reflection again. The face looking back at her was old and scared-looking. She was shocked to see that the hands holding the bucket were old and wrinkly, with brown splotches on the back. These couldn’t be her hands. She had turned into Aunt Jessie! Her heart started pounding. It couldn’t be true. She touched her face and felt coarse short hairs by the side of her mouth, like her aunt sometimes had …
With a yelp of horror she threw the bucket down the well. But her long white hair had got entangled in the rope and she went down too, screaming and falling through a dark, wet, vertical shaft, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
Just as she hit the water she woke up. She was so relieved to find herself in bed that she gave all her toys a special hug to show how pleased she was to see them. It had only been a dream, thank goodness.
Her mother came in and switched off the alarm. ‘Come on, darling, time to get up. You don’t want to be late for school.’
Elisha was about to grumble and make a fuss as she normally did so that her mother would tickle her or something but then she noticed that her mum looked strangely sad and serious. She checked her hands quickly to make sure they weren’t Aunt Jessie’s. No, they were her own hands, complete with bitten nails and the green felt-tip scribble marks she hadn’t been able to scrub off completely in the bath the night before.
‘Is something wrong, Mummy?’ She was disturbed to see her mother wipe away a tear before sitting down on the bed and taking her in her arms.
‘I’d better tell you, darling. It’s Aunt Jessica.’ Elisha had never heard her called that before and instinctively knew something was wrong. ‘The home rang last night to say she died in her sleep.’ Her mother started to cry.
‘Mummy, don’t cry. Remember Aunt Jessie’s in heaven now, with God and Granny.’
Elisha had learnt when she was younger that you didn’t see dead people again. After her gran had died she’d kept expecting her to come back for a visit but she never did. And she never sent birthday cards with badges on any more. At the time she’d thought that the postal service from heaven must be quite bad. Either that or heaven was so great you forgot about everyone left behind. Now she had more of an idea of the finality of being dead and the long-term absence going to heaven entailed.
Her mother made an effort to cheer up and even tried a smile but it was very weak and watery. ‘That’s right, darling. I’ll have to remember that. Aunt Jessie’s with gran now.’