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
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.
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.
When 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.