When you’re four and dirty already and encouraged by a minx like Lucretia, you can fit into very small hiding places.
The first problem had been escaping from Uma’s garden. Before Molly got to one hundred. Luckily at forty-three, a group of school children ambled past. Little Agatha could adopt the camouflage of younger sibling and skip along in their midst. And they were far too busy comparing scores in a game on their phones, to notice her. They were also far to busy to notice that the chubby boy leading their clamouring pack, who was noisily calling out his winning level and seemed to be simultaneously playing on three phones, had dropped one of them. Little Agatha scooped it up and was about to call after the boy, when Lucretia suddenly rushed her down a short flight of steps and into the dark porch of a basement, garden flat.
“Shh, or the rats will find us,” she whispered.
Little Agatha wasn’t good at ‘Shh!’ and Molly found her quickly – a waif will always find another waif but Agatha didn’t know that. Kind-hearted Molly was persuaded to count again.
Agatha needed camouflage, again. This time Lucretia chose a short, round-faced lady and her pug. Which perhaps wasn’t ideal. The pug of course could see Lucretia. And dogs are excellent judges of character. He spluttered and growled and wheezed and attempted a strangled bark. Which drew unwanted attention to Agatha and the stirring of a memory in the lady – something she had read in the paper that morning … something about a … a missing … what was it? Another kitten? …Ah! … A child!
The stirring of memories is a specialty of Lucretia’s – she is acutely sensitive to them. She read the round-faced lady’s and reacted rapidly, hurrying Little Agatha into a small park in the middle of a square. And straight into the middle of a bush. Unfortunately, the pug followed, dragging his mistress with him. She peered into through the thick, shiny leaves, “Hello – is your name Agatha?”
You might be forgiven for thinking that Lucretia has, up to this point, not been particularly naughty.
If sticking your fingers up a pug’s nose, biting his left ear and then spitting in his eye for good measure, isn’t naughty, I don’t know what is.
The pug squealed. Like a wheezy pig.
The lady squealed and scooped him into her arms.
“Naughty! Naughty girl!” she shouted after Little Agatha who was laughing and running across the park, following Lucretia out through the gate near a play area that she often visited with her mother. She was deliciously happy. Her head bubbled and fizzed with each new, exciting turn that Lucretia made her take. She was playing her favourite game. She was winning because Molly hadn’t found her. And she was nearly home.
Nearly home, but not quite home.
Not quite because it was beginning to get dark. And the pavements were busy with chatty observant people on their way to dinner or the theatre or to buy a pint of milk. Lucretia had stopped playing hide and seek and was now doing hide and hide with Little Agatha. The aim was to hide and stay hidden. Even from Molly. Lucretia had to concentrate really hard to think sufficiently out of herself to prevent Molly from finding her. The insides of a tower she had once been locked in seemed to be doing the trick – seventeen wooden beams traversing the roof, all painted brown; three narrow stone windows; one fireplace with a cold hearth; three rickety chairs; one rug and seven portraits of old men hanging crookedly on the wall opposite the heavy metal door … seven portraits … seven old men … three beards – or was it four? … More pavement; another bicycle – a little girl … a-little-girl!
Where was she? Lucretia dragged herself out of her tower – instantly allowing Molly into her head – and followed first one bicycle then another. Would Agatha really have fitted in a bicycle basket? It had just been a suggestion. A flippant one, cast into the air in frustration at failing to find a better hiding place. How would she have climbed in? What if she had and the bicycle was going in the wrong direction? What if she was discovered beneath her coat and in the shock of discovery fell out?
“Stop!” Lucretia told herself.
“Think!” demanded Molly. “Think yourself back into her head. What is she seeing?”
“… I don’t know. I don’t … no. No! … It’s green! It’s a green door. And she’s … she’s not moving! Quick – this way!”
The green door had a gold thirty-one on it, above a gold-coloured letter box. Six small gold buttons and six small name plates were to the right of the door frame. Little Agatha was reaching a small grubby finger towards the first button; Flat 1A, when she stopped suddenly and jumped as an icy draught hit her face. “Loo-cree-zah!” she giggled. “Loo-cree-zee-ah, I finded home.”
Lucretia was relieved that Little Agatha wasn’t under a bus. But she had one final bit of naughtiness to enact.
“Phone Mummy,” she whispered. “On your new phone – the one you found. Let’s go to your Wendy house and phone Mummy from there.”
Getting to Uma’s Wendy house had been easy because her home was on a corner. Little Agatha’s home was in the middle of a terrace. And the gardens could only be accessed through the ground floor flats. There was a large bin cupboard just by the front door of number thirty-one and Lucretia persuaded Agatha to hide in there and wait for the green door to open. She got to fifty-nine before the door opened and the skater boy from upstairs emerged carrying his lime green board and a large ruck sac. He paused to put on his sunglasses as the door started to swing shut behind him and Agatha silently slipped inside. The door to flat 1A was open. There were a lot of men talking inside.
It took Lucretia about twenty seconds to assess the situation, hatch a plan and execute it. Efficiently. And successfully. All it took was a puff of ice-cold waif breath on the neck of the nearest man and the shutting of the sitting room door to keep out the evening chill. Little Agatha slipped unseen into the hall cupboard. Where the coats and shoes and bags and hats and gloves were as familiar as the quilts on her bed and smelt of her mother.
Little Agatha was happy.
But she still had the boy’s phone.