5 Careful what you wish for
First of all, she got home that day to find a policeman in the front garden with her mother. Briefly shy but still curious, she sidled up to them and took her mother’s hand.
‘Oh, here’s Elisha,’ said Mrs Goodman, releasing her hand briefly to rub some of the stickiness off.
Elisha had had a sherbet fountain on her way back – delicious but difficult to eat. You sucked the sherbet powder up from a yellow paper cylinder through a straw made of licorice. But sometimes it made you choke, which is what had just happened to her. And so she’d coughed some up into her hand.
‘It was her bike.’ Elisha’s heart thumped as the policeman gave her a look of sympathy from under his peculiar hat.
‘What, what’s happened?’ she asked, fearing the worst, her voice coming out all wobbly.
‘I’m afraid your bike’s been stolen, darling. Someone broke into the shed while I was out this morning.’
‘No!’ yelled Elisha and ran to the shed to see, hoping to spy her beloved bike out of sight in a corner. But it was nowhere to be seen – the sad oblong of old curtain lay crumpled in the cobwebs on the floor, its once-bright autumn leaves sun-faded into gentle pastels.
‘There’s been a spate of these burglaries in the area,’ the policeman was saying as Elisha began to cry. It really wasn’t fair.
Suddenly she cheered up. It didn’t matter really. All she had to do was wish for it back again. What could be easier?
Her mother put a comforting arm on her shoulder and was just saying, ‘It’s not the end of the world, sweetheart’ when Elisha squirmed out of her grasp and leapt up the stairs to her room.
Her throat was hurting from crying but she managed to choke out, ‘I wish for my bike back,’ while dropping a 2p piece, one she dug out of her Brownie Guide uniform pocket, the one you kept for an emergency phone call, into the well.
By the time tea came round she was quite serene in the belief that the bike was on its way back and tucked into her rissoles and instant Smash. Sure enough there was a knock on the door and it was the same policeman.
‘Yes, hello, constable. Any news?’
Elisha had come to stand behind her mother, smiling and confident.
‘I’m afraid it’s not good, ma’am. We’ve got the bike down at the station but it’s been run over and badly damaged.’
‘Oh no. My daughter will be devastated. But thanks for letting us know. Was anyone hurt?’
The adults continued talking but Elisha didn’t want to hear any more. She ran to her room in tears. Her poor bike. She supposed that her wish had come true, but not as she’d wanted or expected. Something was going wrong with the wishes. She’d have to try again.
Peering into the well, she wondered about Aunt Jessie. What had she wished for when she was little? It would be so nice to ask her advice about what to ask for and how. Suddenly she missed the old lady and felt sorry to think there would be no more Sunday trips to see her; and guilty that she had resented them at the time.
Then she picked up a penny and held it tight in her right hand. ‘I wish for my bike back in perfect condition,’ she said. The coin fell, sank briefly into the depths of the magic well, emerged golden,. Everything would be all right now, she sighed to herself.
At school the next day, the boys congregated around Elisha. She couldn’t believe how popular she’d suddenly become. In her excitement and pleasure, she didn’t notice that Jasmine and Stephanie were pushed to one side. In fact, she was so busy with the boys that she didn’t get the chance to say a word to her friends all day. Philip Evans, in his striped knitted tanktop over a school shirt, walked home with her and even held her hand. Elisha was walking on air. All the girls at school would be so jealous.
‘Good news, darling,’ said her mother as she came into the kitchen. ‘The police had the wrong bike. They got the forms mixed up. Yours still hasn’t turned up but they think they’ve got a lead on the gang who stole it.’
Elisha smiled. Things were definitely looking up again. She had no doubt whatsoever that her bike would soon be back in mint condition. The well wouldn’t let her down.
‘Aren’t you playing with Jasmine and Stephanie?’ asked her mother.
‘Oh, no, not today.’ It was only then that she realised that she’d hardly seen her friends all day. Normally they went to each other’s houses after school – usually Jas’s as she had a colour telly, whose garish hues made the TV worlds look like another planet, handy for Star Trek but not so good for Little House on the Prairie. Phil had gone off once they reached her door. He was playing football at the recreation ground with some boys from his road. Oh well.
She didn’t make a wish that night as she felt it would be a bit greedy. And she also felt a bit sorry for the bike that had been damaged and whoever owned it, who now wouldn’t get it back in one piece.
The next day her parents had to go to the police station to pick up her bike. The police had found a garage full of stolen bikes in north London and hers was among them. It had survived without a scratch. Elisha was overjoyed.
In class, however, there was a nasty shock. Miss Clements decided they should have a surprise spelling test. This was one kind of surprise Elisha could do without. The teacher would choose a word and then pick on a pupil to stand up and spell it.
‘Of course the champion spellers will get the more difficult words,’ said the teacher, nodding toward Elisha and smiling.
Elisha tried to smile back but went suddenly cold all over. Her grin kind of froze on her face. She hadn’t had a chance to wish to do well in this – and she was going to be given extra hard words because the teacher believed she was good at spelling.
Elisha looked down at her hands, hoping Miss Clements would forget to call on her. Occasionally that happened. To begin with, it seemed to work, as other pupils stood up to spell out words. Elisha stole a glance at the big classroom clock on the wall. She couldn’t read the time all that well though. She wished all the clocks could be digital like her alarm one. Surely the lesson must be nearly over. And then it would be time to hear Miss Quigley read some more of the storybook.
‘Elisha.’ She turned her head sharply at the voice and got a sharp pain in her neck. This was because the message hadn’t got through to her brain fast enough, her mum used to say.
‘Yes, miss.’ Her mouth and throat felt dry and her voice sounded cracked like an old woman’s.
‘Now, this is quite a short word but it’s a bit tricky so think carefully,’ the teacher warned. ‘It’s aisle, as in cinema aisle or supermarket aisle.’
‘Or walking down the aisle at your wedding, Miss,’ added Veronica Atkins, smirking like she was already in her bridal gown.
‘Exactly, Veronica.’ Elisha shot her a sharp look. She was always sucking up to the teachers.
Standing up, Elisha felt giddy and unreal somehow, paper-thin, like she might get blown over. She cleared her throat noisily and some boys giggled. ‘Aisle,’ she repeated. ‘… I – s -l – e … .’ She knew from the teacher’s frown she was wrong.
‘No, Elisha, that’s isle as in island…’
‘Like in the British Isles, miss,’ trilled Veronica smugly, eagerly thrusting her hand into the air to be called on.
Miss Clements nodded at her a bit peremptorily and she got to her feet as Elisha sank down again at her desk, her cheeks pink and hot.
‘Aisle – a – i – s – l – e,’ Veronica pronounced triumphantly. As she flicked a sleek strand of hair over her shoulder, she couldn’t help looking at Elisha in a ‘neer, neer, neer neer, neer’ way.
‘That’s right, Veronica. Well done. Now, all of you who got words right can bring your books up for a silver star. And Veronica, you get a gold one.’
A small queue of excited children formed by the teacher’s desk, comparing the stars in their books so far. Elisha wished she could climb inside her desk and curl up very small.
The bell rang after a few minutes and the children trooped out. It was normally the best time of day, when they could sit on the floor in a group round Miss Quigley, as she read the next chapter of the storybook, but Elisha couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it today. Even when Philip Evans and Neil Savage squabbled over which one got to sit next to her, it didn’t cheer her up. She found herself wishing that Jasmine and Stephanie were next to her instead – but they’d sat together on the opposite side of the group. Their heads were close together and they were suppressing giggles. She wondered if it was a joke about her. Being pretty had made her all puffed up like a meringue but now she felt hollow inside like one too. She needed someone to talk to and you couldn’t talk to boys …
Elisha fell asleep on the couch that Sunday afternoon. Her dad was mowing the lawn in the back garden and her mum was on the phone to a friend she’d met at her Spanish evening class. The lawnmower’s repetitive drone mixed with her mum’s voice in her head. Oddly, rather than keeping her awake, the noise made her feel sleepy and, although she was trying to read a book, she could feel her eyelids getting heavy.
The book was Five on a Secret Trail by Enid Blyton. She’d got it in the Red Cross shop in the High Street on Saturday, while her mum tried on a pair of brown trousers. The kids’ paperbacks were all 10p. This one had a colourful front-cover and was numbered 15. The author’s signature was printed in white on the front. She liked secondhand books. They smelt different and their readers had left a mark on them in some way. She didn’t like it when she found a crushed fly stuck to the page or bits of old food in the inside margins though. And things her mum called ‘unmentionables’. Yuck.
It had blue ink stains on the first page and a scrap of exercise-book paper Sellotaped to the inside of the cover. On this someone had written dates in red felt tip, with initials, as if they’d tried to copy the author’s signature a bit. Some of it was just squiggles. And the dates were written inside blue, fountain-pen ring marks, that looked like the imprint of the bottom of something.
Further on in the book she found a postcard of something called ‘the Lincoln Imp’, sent to a Miss Emma Phillips.
The postcard told `The Legend of the Lincoln Imp’, under a picture of a stone imp, apparently a young demon turned into stone by one of God’s angels for mucking about in Lincoln Cathedral. Elisha thought that seemed a bit harsh – the imp was only having fun and he didn’t look really evil.
She takes the book upstairs, yawning cavernously, entering her room to find the actual Lincoln Imp jumping up and down on her bed, making everything else on the tartan bedspread bounce around dangerously. Her schoolbag is being thrown up so that it flops down and stuff starts to spill out – felt-tips and snack box and her workbook with its stickers and stars and popstars’ names in fluorescent colours … The imp meanwhile is baring its teeth to snarl and making a hideous gurgling sound. Suddenly she sees the well, perilously close to the edge of the bed, knocked on its side, the bucket hanging over the top of the roof. She tries to get round to it but as soon as she moves, the imp leaps in front of her.
It had looked quite cute on the postcard but now its face is twisted and grotesque with rough, black hairs sticking out of it. She recoils, cringing. It has really hot breath that smells like petrol and it seems very angry, its eyes bulging scarily.
She tries to call out for her mum but can’t get the words out – her voice is sticking in her throat. She tries several times without managing to make any sound at all. At last she squeezes out a croaky ‘Mu–um’, so quiet that it’s almost inaudible. She feels like she’s trapped in a particularly scary episode of Doctor Who.
Suddenly, the imp turns away from her and takes hold of the well. Released from his gaze, Elisha realises what she must do and reaches for her money box, opening the back to take out a penny. The demon seems entranced by the well, which he has taken hold of with both hands, staring into it and shaking it violently about, grunting with his exertions.
Elisha pulls her hand back behind her head and throws the coin towards the well. It looks like it’s going to miss but somehow it swerves in midair, correcting itself, and drops into the well. ‘I wish the imp gone,’ she says aloud, amazed that the words actually come out.
There’s the sound of water rushing down the plughole, only louder, much louder. It sounds like Niagara Falls or something. The whole room rocks with the noise. And all at once the imp’s head is pulled towards the well opening, then his body – the whole of him seems to become fluid and lose its form as he’s sucked down into the well and is gone. It’s immediately silent, almost eerily so.
Elisha woke up to find herself still on the old couch and her parents in the back garden, inspecting a rosebush together. She sighed and relaxed but her calmness only lasted a minute before she panicked that something might really have happened to the well.
Running up the stairs to her bedroom two at a time, the heavy thump of her feet echoed the loud beating of her heart. She knew it was just a dream but she couldn’t help being worried. As she bounded through the door, it flew back and hit her clothes cupboard with a sickening crunch. She didn’t stop to look at the damage she’d done, but chucked the Famous Five book on the bed and stooped to look in the bottom of her wardrobe, where she’d stowed the well for safekeeping. Her mouth fell open – it wasn’t there. She rummaged desperately among old shoes and sandals and trews that had got too small and had an elasticated band you put round the bottom of your feet and the school projects on fashion and nature that you did at the end of each term. It wasn’t there! It hadn’t got buried or pushed aside. She flung both wardrobe doors wide open to let in more light. A sprig of pussy willow and a sycamore wing-pod thing tumbled out of the blue nature folder. But there was no sign of the little wishing well.
Back she ran down the stairs – one at a time as it was harder to skip steps on the way down, but still as fast as she could, shouting ‘Mum! Mum!’ as she landed in the hall and careered round the banister. Her mother was stepping through the French windows, a plastic green watering can in one hand and grass darts in her hair.
‘What is it, darling?’ She paused to water some houseplants on the coffee table, spider plants whose long striped fronds brushed the floor, taking the shower-type attachment off the spout and replacing it afterwards.
‘It’s Aunt Jessie’s well! It’s gone! It was in the bottom of my wardrobe and it’s gone!’ Elisha jumped around her mother, making dust bounce up and swirl in the sunlight.
Her mother sneezed. ‘Oh, the well. I’ve moved it to the display cabinet in the other room, darling. I thought it was getting a bit dusty down there in your wardrobe.’
‘But, Mummy, it’s mine. I want to keep it in my room.’
‘Well, I know, darling. But I thought it might be safer in the cabinet.’
‘Why? I’m looking after it, aren’t I?’
‘Go out and help your dad with the grass clippings and we’ll see.’
‘Oh, Mum.’ Her tone was the protest.
She stepped down onto the pink and grey crazy paving and a grass dart immediately landed on her sleeve. Her father was grinning at her mischievously, standing by the climbing frame with a lot of grass darts ready in one hand. He threw another one and it stuck in her hair. For an instant she just looked at him grumpily but then another one landed in her sock. Unable to help herself, she leapt up the steps to the lawn and ran towards him, yelling, and launching herself at his stomach. He grunted as she hit him and dropped the darts, which she quickly grabbed at and started to throw at him. In a minute they were both rolling around on the grass, laughing.
Suddenly her mum was standing over them with the watering can. ‘That’s enough larking about, you two,’ she smiled; and then tipped the can so that water sprinkled down on top of them. Elisha screamed and her dad went, ‘Right, that’s it!’ before grabbing her mum round the knees so that she ended up down on the grass too. And pretty soon they were all red in the face and puffed out and Elisha’s sides hurt from laughing. She had grass clippings plastered to her face with the water and soil in her hands from falling in the flowerbed.
Her parents helped each other to their feet. ‘I think you’d better have your bath before tea today,’ suggested her father, considering Elisha’s mucky face and hands and tossing his slightly long hair back over his sideburns (sometimes he took longer doing his hair than her mum did).
‘What about you two? You’re just as bad as me.’
‘I think she’s getting a bit cheeky, don’t you? Obviously we’re not disciplining her enough.’ Her dad lifted her upright and pretended to smack her. She squealed and ran inside the house and up the stairs, for the moment forgetting all about the magic well.