Paternoster Tales: Chapter 28

 Little Agatha

Dogs don’t hallucinate.

Waifs are real.

Well, real-ish … if you want to be pernickety – seen by some adults, including Patrick and the judge, by pigeons and most birds and animals and by children, including Little girls. Little Agatha saw Lucretia and Lucretia was intent on having a great time at the expense of many others. But Lucretia seldom considered others. Paternoster has called it her selfish streak. I think it’s more that she sometimes wades so deep into a sea of self-absorption that she fails to notice others swimming in the same water. And when they start to drown she doesn’t see them. If they were visible to her, I think part of her would care. In the company of Agatha, the caring part of Lucretia is locked inside a silver trinket box called Merriment. And Merriment means she only has eyes for Little Agatha.

I had to do something. To confront the Merriment. Another night and Little Agatha would have been missing for forty-eight hours.

Paternoster was busy breaking his own laws – time would later reveal just how spectacularly – as he accompanied Patrick and the judge back to Patrick’s home in the warren of narrow alleys that nestle quietly between St Paul’s and the River. Anyone observing the two old men talking animatedly to each other – and tiddly-fashion to some other in the air – would suppose they’d enjoyed too much claret with dinner.

Finding Little Agatha was therefore down to me.

When I say finding, that isn’t strictly what I mean. I knew she was with Lucretia so in a sense she was found already. What I had to do was somehow coax Lucretia into revealing where the exact location of that found-ness was and then find a way of telling Agatha’s mother. Or the police. Or Old Agatha … or … hmmm – this was the hard bit; the near impossible task of letting one of your full-bodied, living, grown-up, non-waif-seeing beings know where she was. Little Agatha you see … or you don’t see … was playing hide-and-seek. She had been told by Lucretia to hide. I’m not sure who Agatha thought was doing the counting. Perhaps that wasn’t specified in Lucretia’s version of the game. What Agatha did is what all little girls do – she hid in her favourite place.

Only it wasn’t.

It wasn’t … HER … favourite place. It was like the favourite place that was hers, at the bottom of her narrow ground-floor-flat garden. But it was in a different garden. One that she had climbed into, through the fence that ran along the pavement side of her friend Uma’s house. Uma’s Wendy house was bigger than Little Agatha’s and it had soft cushions and books and paper and crayons and a table with a spotty table cloth and red chairs and a short ladder up to a sleeping platform and a quilt and pillows and a blue rabbit. Uma’s family were away, on holiday. Agatha was as pleased as a hungry spring squirrel that’s just discovered a hollow in a tree filled with soft downy feathers and hundreds of nuts to have Uma’s house to herself. She was, of course, a princess squirrel; a princess who immediately set about spring cleaning her new home.

The blue rabbit and a broken tea cup were first to fall into the wheelbarrow outside the Wendy house. Followed by a ‘not very nice’ book about a dragon, three dirty spoons, five crayons with no points and a hairbrush full of long bits of brown grass.

The hairbrush hadn’t been full of dead grass until Agatha tried to use it to clean the bit of roof she could reach above the door.

The crayons were without points because Agatha had jumped on them after the bedside table she tried to make with them and the dragon book had collapsed, tipping both book and tea-cup onto the wooden floor.

The dragon book had muddy footprints on it. Where Agatha had stamped on it. Crossly.

The tea spoons were dirty because she had used them as spades to plant the seeds from the apple she found in her pocket.

She’d tried to clean the tea spoons with the rabbit’s long fluffy ears but the mud was too sticky and wouldn’t come off properly.

The wheelbarrow looked messy and Agatha was slightly concerned it might make her cheeks burn if Uma came back suddenly, so she took a quilt from Uma’s doll’s pram and covered all the messy, broken, un-pointed stuff.

She found a watering can and watered the apple seeds and a small broom to sweep the path leading up to the Wendy house. Then she remembered she was hiding and went inside to wait to be found.

She didn’t wait long.  She’d counted to eighty-nine but couldn’t remember if the next number was seventy again, although any number-again didn’t seem right. Or if it wasn’t seventy-again, then could it be one hun-er-red? Also, she thought she might have missed out all the numbers beginning with thirty-something but she was pretty sure that thirty didn’t come after eighty-nine. Lucretia found her just as she decided to do the seventies again.

Little Agatha though Lucretia was a grown up, so didn’t feel at all frightened about not going home. Even at night, when Lucretia told her stories about a queen and a thousand little boats and candles floating down the river past tall sailing ships where men sang lullabies about far away lands until the torch battery started to fade and Agatha, curled up like a dormouse on the sleeping platform, with her arms wrapped round her knees, fell asleep.

Now, you’re probably wondering what she found to eat. She didn’t go hungry! Lucretia had shown her some strawberries growing in a big orange pot in Uma’s garden and with the picnic in her back-pack that had been intended for lunch in the park with her mother, she’d eaten strawberries and chocolate and a banana for her lunch and a strawberry and ham sandwich for her tea. But after the strawberry and pocket-biscuit-crumb breakfast the next morning, Little Agatha was beginning to think that the food at home was better and warmer. She wanted to go home. She didn’t think she should pee again in the sand-pit bucket and she wanted a bath – her knees were all garden-y and her fingers were stained with strawberry juice and she never wore the same clothes two days running. She wanted a mummy hug. Lucretia was a strange sort of grown up who said she could play but  couldn’t give hugs.

Lucretia has more faults than a pot-bellied piglet in a fancy Parisian fashion house but she is very good at playing games. Somehow, she convinced Little Agatha that the sand-pit bucket was an on-safari-loo. And she could wash her hands if she turned the tap for the garden hose and paddle in the puddle  on the lawn when she forgot to turn it off. And that the milk in a cold box by the front door, which Agatha didn’t know was waiting for Uma’s family to return that evening, was perfect with more strawberries, some red lettuce leaves, slightly squishy tomatoes and a handful of peas for lunch. Little Agatha had never unzipped pea pods before. She picked, unzipped and popped so many that their sunny afternoon was spent playing pea-marbles and lining-up-peas-to-make-a-snake and pea-pictures.

At about the time Patrick sat down to dinner with the judge, I told Lucretia enough was enough.

I imagine you’re thinking,’No, you can’t have done.’ Which as thinking goes would not be a bad think to be having. Can you have a think? It sounds so much better than having a thought. Having a thought sounds like you’re waiting at a bus stop for a tortoise to arrive, while having a think is high-fiving the hare that’s just run up bearing the words of your think on his tabard. I know having a think and calling a think a bad think would probably result in hand-cuffing and being taken away for a strict talking to by the grammar police, but if Paternoster can break his own rules, I feel I can be forgiven if I indulge in my passion for silly word play and perhaps break a few rules too.

So … you’re almost right – I couldn’t have told Lucretia anything as I was on Paternoster Square watching Paternoster breaking his rules. This is true but not correct. I could and did tell Lucretia enough was enough because I sent Molly to tell her. On my behalf.

I also asked Molly to pretend to Silas that she hadn’t seen me. She had to get to Holborn. So Silas would hear that she’d been in the tunnels, and knowing him and what my escaping would have done to him, he would probably lie in wait for her return. It’s not that we can only travel through the tunnels, it’s just that it’s the easiest way for us to navigate – we’re a bit like birds when it comes to navigation above ground, especially at night and particularly now as London is under constant attack from battalions of cranes and scaffolding and billboards and walls of glass; it’s discombobulating. And a  discombobulated waif is a lost waif.

So we avoid the maze of overground London and stick to the tunnels. Where for over eighty years Harry Beck’s colourful circuit diagram of the London Tube network has served us well. It’s simple to dodge the trains and follow a colour – usually red for us. Harry’s way is an easy way for waifs to get about. Easy that is, if we avoid Silas. Not so easy if we don’t. But I didn’t have time to work out a safe overground route – Molly had to get to Lucretia quickly. That’s why I sent her via the tunnels. And Silas is the reason I’ll never send her or anyone that way again. Unless I have to.

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