Paternoster Tales

Book 1: Agatha

Chapter 1: Burp

Do you know it’s impossible to write the sound of a burp? No combination of letters gets it quite right.

Grr-ow-urrk! Ey-ou-rr-ph!

Go on, give it a try.

Difficult, isn’t it? But not nearly as hard as finding the letters to imitate a champion burp. Have you ever heard a champion burp?

Probably not, because it’s absolutely not like any burp you’ve ever heard before.

Normal burps – ones that smell of dinner and sour milk – explode into our mouths and make our lips curl and wobble. You know those ones. They feel rude and naughty and funny all at the same time.

But even a ten-out-of-ten normal burp is a breezy explosion compared with the hurricane of a champion burp.

Paternoster is a champion burper. One of his burps will empty rooms.

A Paternoster burp rolls and roils and gurgles and growls. It sounds like the lowing moan of a gang of warted goblins – tormented by a thousand armoured, angrily stabbing wasps – stumbling in painful panic, through a thick ice-cold bog and foggy, putrid, eye-pricking, and sulphur-yellow air. Too much description …? I don’t think so. You see, a Paternoster burp is so awful that it is difficult to put into words. Just shut your eyes and picture those goblins and dream the burp. Or put it into a nightmare. Awful!

But the picture is not complete without the smell!

Think of the worst smell you have ever smelled; one that, once lodged in your nose, no amount of sneezing will shift. Now wrap that smell in onion slices and plunge it into a bowl of week-old, fungating, cabbage broth and sprinkle it with dog slobber; ear wax; a pile of damp leaves that have been on the pavement since autumn and are beginning to decay; the foaming, soup-like, grey water that has been waiting in a rock pool since the last Spring tide, two weeks ago and has lots of bubbling dead things in it; and the brown, sticky, toe-nail clippings of a giant sloth. You’ll still not be close to the awfulness of Paternoster’s burps but you’ll be feeling sick. Paternoster’s burps make everyone feel sick. Especially, when it’s first thing in the morning and you haven’t finished observing breakfast.

It wasn’t a particularly good morning for observing breakfast; too damp, with beads of rain on tables and chairs where people normally sat for coffee and croissant or muffin or something containing bacon. A wet Monday – 8:37 am – and Paternoster had just finished lecturing us on why we should never ever wear red wellingtons. He was, for Paternoster, quite angry. Paternoster doesn’t usually do angry. But the red wellingtons had upset him and at the end of his softly spoken rant, he let off one.

A burp. A Paternoster burp!

Without warning.

Which was hugely inconsiderate because the rant, as I said, had been softly spoken, forcing us to gather round closely in order to give at least half an appearance of listening to him. Being that near the epicentre, meant that the burp exploded straight up our nostrils. It sent us reeling. We flew backwards, fifty feet or so, stopping only when building walls got in our way and we smashed into windows and bricks and stone. Choking and winded, we gasped for clean air. Desperately blowing and sucking and blowing and sucking to purge the stench from our lungs.

And there we need to stay until tomorrow and the next chapter of this story. Then, I will rewind: back to those red wellingtons and why they upset Paternoster.

Chapter 2: Red

The red wellingtons walked across our square early that Monday morning. Actually, they didn’t walk. They hopped. They skipped. They stopped and stubbornly stamped. And then dragged their toes along the ground before forgetting and pirouetting and running again. They were attached to the feet of Agatha. Agatha was four-and-three-quarters and was named after her mother’s great aunt, who was ancient and smelled of lavender. And whose equally ancient butler served dusty tea and stale biscuits to the little girl every Monday. Young Agatha had to sit and not fidget, in her best dress, pretending to nibble the biscuits while squeezing off soft little bits and hiding them in her pocket. Her mother talked to the aunt for precisely thirty minutes and told her all about their London life and how expensive everything was. Agatha’s mother hoped that the aunt might die soon. And that her will would be generous to her young namesake. Not the best premise for naming a child. But perhaps not the worst either. The aunt was not blinkered; she understood all of this, but she looked forward to their visits and she had made sure that little Agatha and her mother would remember her fondly enough. Little Agatha liked her aunt – if not her biscuits – and both fitted their rather old fashioned and austere name. On this damp, drizzly, Monday morning, little Agatha also fitted her new red wellingtons.

But hang on a moment! A long moment; one that lasts until tomorrow. I’ll tell you who we are in the next chapter.

Chapter 3: Introductions

On the subject of names, I have been remiss. I forgot to introduce myself. Or to introduce us, for that matter.

We need intro-diddly-ductions as a friend of mine says. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you who that friend was and, although he may creep into the next book, he’s not important to this story, so I’ll just pretend that the diddly bit is mine.

So, intro-diddly-ductions … let’s get started.

You know who you are?

Of course you do!

Hello you.

You don’t know who we are, though; do you?

Not yet.

You may have glimpsed us – out of the corner of your eye – as you walk, too quickly, through your life. Or felt the light tickle of our breath on your face as we whispered ideas and dreams and aspirations into your ear. I like inventing aspirations. It’s a good word – full of promises and adventure. If I pop one in your ear you’ll suddenly think you’ve had a great idea. You won’t know that the idea was mine. You won’t see my face reflecting your smile as I watch you nod at yourself and stride off to get on with your life.

If I tell you that we live in the land between opposing mirrors … you’ll tell me that I’m conjuring with nonsense.

What does living in the land between opposing mirrors mean?

Let me break it down.

Just a bit.

Just for you.

I’ll explain it … hmm … how? I’ll explain it … better! Let – me – see.

Let’s start with – um – the living bit. If by living you understand eating, breathing and sleeping, then … we do sleep.

But we don’t eat.

And my chest does go in and out like its hooked-up to a memory of breathing. But that doesn’t mean much, because the last time I took a look inside myself (which was a long time ago because looking inside yourself – properly inside – is … well, properly disgusting and demoralising and left me more wretched than a beetle that’s been squashed beneath a bicycle wheel and then got to watch several of its legs going round and round and round as the bicycle sped away) all I saw was some brittle twiggy stuff, a pile of soot and grey, thready cobwebs where I guess my lungs used to be.

So, if ‘living’ must include eating and breathing, perhaps we do a different type of living to you.

If however, living simply equals sleeping and flowing through narrow spaces, like the gaps between bricks, then we live. Just like you.

Oh, you don’t do that?

Flow between bricks? You live but you don’t flow.

You don’t flow at all?

Ah. I guess we just have sleep in common with your type of living. Which will do; I’ve heard it’s good to be ‘in common.’ I can’t remember who told me. Paternoster would know. He tells us that he knows everything.

Sometimes, he’s right.

Next … next; next? The land between the mirrors.

It doesn’t exist.

Except, it must. Because that’s where we live. It’s more of an idea of a place than an actual place. You can’t visit it. Unless you become one of us.

We can’t leave it. So we’re kind of trapped. Which we whisper. Trapped is a horrid word. It’s not nice to be prisoners in a place that doesn’t exist. Which is rather complicated. And puzzling in an ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’ way; expressed so well by the big question mark that’s written all over your face.

Best move on, then … to the mirrors.

They’re not puzzling at all.

I think you thought I’d start with the mirrors. Didn’t you? You heard mirrors and you thought ‘I know what mirrors are.’ But they’re pretty boring; the mirrors are just basic physics.

See?!

Bo-o-oring!

The laws of light demand that when you put mirrors facing each other  … that’s the opposing bit … the light between them will bounce for ever, from one to the other, creating an infinity which is precisely where you’ll find us. Except it isn’t – it’s where we’ll find you, when we see you looking at yourself in the mirrors. But where you won’t find us, because you won’t see us, because very, very, very few people can. See us, I mean. We’re still trying to figure out exactly who those people are. And why they can see us, when none of the rest of you can. You’d think after hundreds of years, we’d have some answers. But no. We have none. Paternoster has theories. Long-winded theories. Theories that put us to sleep quicker than any lullaby. But he has no answers; it remains a puzzle.

It’s always a shock when we realise that one of you is watching us. Discombobulating, you could say. Which would be a good and apt thing to say because discombobulating is a very good word. Don’t you agree?

Dis-com-BOB-ul-ating!

My discombobulating intro-diddly-duction is over.

We live in the land between opposing mirrors.

We watch you.

We are Paternoster, Molly and me. I’m Barnabus. We watch you. And we try to stop Lucretia and her tricks, which she says are harmless. But they’re not. We’re not meant to interact too much with you. But she says there aren’t any rules. So she does. And it seldom turns out well.

Oh! I forgot to tell you what we are. We’re most definitely, absolutely, not ghosts. Molly thinks she once heard someone call us waifs. Maybe that’s what we are. Maybe it isn’t. I know we’re something. You’re reading this, so you must know we’re something. I don’t think what we are is important.

We.

Are.

That’s all that matters.

If I’ve left anything out – about us – I’ll tell you later. For now, let’s get back to the red wellingtons and Agatha.

Chapter 4 – Hot chocolate

Having said hello and puzzled you with all those intro-diddly-ductions, yesterday, it’s time to return to Agatha’s red wellingtons and why they made Paternoster so cross. And why a full English breakfast is not … most Absolutely Definitely not better with fresh, uncooked, startled pigeon paddling in a puddle of baked beans and pecking at the mushrooms.

It really had nothing to do with Agatha. Or her new wellingtons. But everything to do with their colour. And Lucretia.

The wellingtons were red.

Red, with no fancy bows or pictures or laces.

What does the colour red mean to you? Christmas, reindeer noses, robins, ripe English apples, strawberries, hearts, tomatoes, fun, daring, naughtiness, summer pudding, poppies, a setting sun, embarrassment, fire, and hey-look-at-me-I’m-confident-enough-to-wear-red. All good things, generally. Fun things. Warm things.

To Lucretia, red is the colour of power. Blood is red. Red blood is warm. And spilt blood is exceedingly bad. It is also the colour of frantic flamenco dancers, of erupting volcanoes, of fiery chillies, of branding irons, of  bullfights, of war, of nuggety nobbles of bird droppings after the birds have been thieving red-currants, of rage and danger. Lucretia saw Agatha stomping her new red wellingtons, when her mother refused to buy her a hot chocolate, and Lucretia’s eyes flared red with shared indignation and excitement.

Hot chocolate; creamy, warm, chocolatey, topped with a rocky cairn of sweet marshmallows. Warming on a damp Monday morning and desired by a little girl with cold hands and new red wellies. It was the Monday before the burp. Agatha and her mother were a few minutes late – the yellow floral socks had clashed with the red wellies and they’d had to empty the wash basket to find some pink bunny ones.

Agatha’s mother was not in the mood for further delays. She brushed aside the request for hot chocolate. Without explanation.

It would probably have been better if she’d taken time to explain why on this particular Monday morning, they didn’t have time to practice their French and stop to order a small hot chocolate from the nice man in the French cafe. It would also have been better if she had remembered how very annoying it is to young children to be told ‘No!’ without explanation. But that is what happened and Agatha, restless and thirsty for hot chocolate in her new red wellies, saw red. Seeing red, in case you don’t know, meant seeing Lucretia. I forgot to mention that very small children can usually see us. Agatha saw Lucretia at just the moment when her mother said ‘No!’

Lucretia sensed fun.

Lucretia can be very wicked.

It turned out that Agatha can be pretty wicked too.

Chapter 5

On the subject of wicked things –

And this time not in the Lucretia bad or Agatha just a bit naughty or led astray sense, but instead in a breakfast of bacon, sausages, beans, eggy bread, mushrooms, tomatoes and buttery wedges of toast that looked totally wicked. You see … ‘totally wicked’ … I do keep up with the times. In lingo terms … lingo, hah! Is lingo one of mine? Or is it yours?

Back to wicked: when I was young enough to eat full English breakfasts, totally wicked meant something entirely felonious or vagabondy or deadly. Not anymore. I wonder why they’re called full English breakfasts. Perhaps, it’s because they fill you up, fuller than a pig in a swill trough. Or because they comprise ingredients entirely from England. Or because only the English would cram so much onto one plate. That I only get to see it and smell it and watch it being eaten is … totally, totally wicked. The bad, sad, mad wicked. Or could I say ‘totes’ wicked? Or would that make you sick? The old fashioned meaning of sick …

‘Enough!’ Paternoster says, ‘Enough.’ He thinks I should stop playing with words and get on with storytelling. So, here goes. I hadn’t actually strayed that far; the story does involve a full English breakfast.

You see … or rather you don’t, because I haven’t told you where this story happens; where, on that Monday morning, Agatha stamped her feet and Lucretia spotted her red wellingtons. Agatha was hopping, skipping and stamping as she and her mother crossed Paternoster Square, in the shadow of St Paul’s cathedral, in London, England. That’s the place we – Paternoster, Molly and me … and Lucretia! – had temporarily made home. Why? – four walls of windows that become opposing mirrors; people – lots of people to watch; pigeons to tease; a sense of history that we feel comfortable with; pavement tables and chairs where we can watch breakfasts and lunches and dinners and dream of food; ping pong tables; and well, because it shares Paternoster’s name. He thinks he had the name first. But I’m not so sure.

As I have said several times already, Agatha stamped her wellingtons and ‘saw red.’ I know that usually means getting angry but in Agatha’s case it meant she saw Lucretia. And when she saw Lucretia her eyes almost popped out of her head.

Agatha had never seen anyone quite like Lucretia before.

She’d never seen anyone quite so colourful and tattered and fluttering and difficult to focus on as Lucretia.

And she’d never seen anyone fly.

Chapter 6

Hadn’t I told you that we can fly?

It’s not so much that we can, it’s more that we do. We fly. It’s much faster than walking.

Agatha saw Lucretia flying. And she stopped stamping her wellingtons.

Lucretia’s once beautiful face was so close to Agatha’s face that Agatha nearly fell over backwards. Which is not surprising. Lucretia’s skin is paper-thin and wrinkled into lines like the ripples on a sandy beach. It’s about the same colour as sand too. Her lips are the colour of a ripe plum and her eyes are the deep blue of an ocean, with a furious glint in them that drags her back to her youthful days of gossip and intrigue and dark love and poison.

Lucretia wasn’t a terribly good human. She isn’t a terribly good … whatever we are. But now her plots are usually more innocent. And when they’re not exactly innocent, they are certainly less murderous. Yes … Lucretia, when she was alive, was very BAD!

On that damp Monday morning, the Lucretia that Agatha saw was grinning. She looked down her long nose at the little girl and sniffed. Her eyebrows were raised into two sharp, upturned, interrogating Vs like a pair of crows about to rise-up from her forehead. She parted her lips to speak. But Agatha, perhaps afraid of what she might say, put her finger to her mouth and whispered ‘Shh!’

I think it is not unreasonable to suggest that Lucretia had never been Shushed before. It was her turn to look startled. But no expression ever lingers long on Lucretia’s face. She banished it quickly and what appeared was a sudden recognition of fellowship and respect. I saw it. And I should have known then, that this pairing would be unpredictable, fiery, frenetic and enormous fun. Can I call a four-and-three-quarters-year-old a badass chick? I know Lucretia is one. But Agatha – so sweet on the outside; with a bad, bad-girl-with-attitude inside.

I was mesmerised and a little bit excited. I’ll happily admit that I was also a tiny bit afraid.

Okay … perhaps not so tiny. Perhaps quite considerably afraid. Where considerably was me lying on the ground under the Eiffel Tower with my fear extending all the way to the champagne bar at the top. I was worried about what would happen next.

Remember I mentioned ping pong and pigeons and breakfasts? Well, what happened next, involved all three. It couldn’t have happened at all, if pigeons weren’t so stupid; they’re not the brightest bears in the fish pond are they?

What? … bears in fish ponds? … Bears, as in nature’s natural, fur-coat-wearing fishermen. And fish ponds, as in small pools of murky water stuffed full of bear dinner. And pigeons as in not the brightest bears; the ones that … well – just get wet. And stay hungry.

‘Bears in fishponds?’ No? Okay, maybe it’s one of mine. It works for herons too, but with herons it’s boring – too visually static. No splashing. No paws and water and teeth. Paternoster says I have to stop. Again. And get back to what happened.

Hmmm, maybe I’ll tell you tomorrow …

Chapter 7: Ping-pong

Chapter seven …  I love the number seven. Do you have a favourite number? If you do, have you ever wondered why it is your favourite. It’s easy to explain why you might have a favourite fruit (… mine? – raspberry), or animal (dog), or time (the hour before dawn), but can you really say why a number is your favourite? Five is easy – the number of fingers on one hand; three – a beginning, a middle and an end, and of course the number of parts in a sandwich; two – you and your best friend; but other numbers, how do you explain those to yourself? I like that seven is angular and spikey and prime.

Anyhow, enough about favourite numbers; Paternoster (I bet his favourite number is one) says … well, you know what he says … I need to get on with the story and what happened next.

Remember, I listed ping-pong as one of the reasons for us to be on Paternoster Square. You might have thought this sounded a bit odd. But in a world where we can’t interfere with anything going on around us, that anything does not include feathers. Or autumn leaves. Or dropped train tickets. Or ping-pong balls. The next time you see a swirl of leaves spinning round in the corner of a building, or a feather that falls and rises on an invisible breeze and appears not to want to settle – those are the games we play with the anythings that our time forgot.

Paternoster Square has two ping-pong tables. To Agatha they look like houses and every Monday she runs in and out between the legs, visiting and leaving the shop/house/library/school – whatever she imagines it might be that particular week. Occasionally, she can’t because there are people actually playing ping-pong, or table-tennis as it’s also known. It’s when they play that we have our fun. It’s amazing what we can do to ping-pong balls. We can make them veer off in the opposite direction, swerve, do a double or triple bounce and ping off unwary noses or elbows or heads. People always explain it away saying it’s due to a fickle breeze or even, if they won the point and are arrogantly delusional, their skill. Paternoster is worried that you might not know what I mean by an arrogantly delusional ping-pong player.  An arrogantly dissolve – disolutional – dish … oh? … one of them! is like a cat who thinks he can jump onto the roof because he knows and tells everyone, all the time, that he’s the biggest cat around. And the roof is not much higher than an average cat-leap-high bird table. And he thinks he’s done it before (he hasn’t). And that when he did, it was easier than rolling over and having his tummy tickled. What he’s forgotten is that the easy-to-reach roof was the one on the kennel next door, which was easy to reach because at the time he was being chased by the neighbour’s Alsatian. And that the Alsatian-escaping-leap was accomplished eight years ago, before arthritis took up residence in his knees. Paternoster thinks that will explain both arrogant (boastful) and delusional (wrong) to you (which I also did, using just two words, compared to his one-hundred-and-fifteen).

Do you remember where we were in the story before Paternoster interrupted – the Monday morning – Agatha – Lucretia – ping-pong? Well … the only player at the tables, that morning, was one of Lucretia’s pigeons.

I need to explain – Lucretia ‘keeps’ pigeons. Birds, you see, can always see us. Sometimes this works well for the birds. Sometimes it doesn’t. Lucretia’s pigeons probably didn’t regard it as a benefit of any sorts. Although, as they aren’t the brightest bears in the fish pond, they probably didn’t overthink it. Which is probably just as well. Because she makes fools of them.

Somehow, … quite how, I have no idea … she had persuaded a pair that ping-pong balls were eggs. Not just any eggs but their own eggs. Their eggs that never hatched. Wherever Lucretia placed the egg-balls the pigeons would try to sit on them. A pigeon trying to incubate a ping-pong ball is like a penguin trying to balance on a football that’s just rolled through a puddle of oil. Not an easy feat to accomplish for an agile bird; harder when agility is not one of your extremely limited talents. The pigeons had become accomplished at a frantic, noisy, wings all akimbo, slipping, sliding, rolling, bumping, flurry-of-feathers falling over. Always, no matter how many times it happened, with an ‘I didn’t expect this to happen!’ expression on their faces. When she was either bored, or feeling particularly evil, Lucretia would balance the egg-balls in impossible places – in the veil of a bride posing for photographs on the steps of St Paul’s was particularly memorable; forever preserved in her wedding album will be a picture of the bride with a streak of white across her face from a panicked, incontinent, swiped-at pigeon.

Agatha saw Lucretia first and followed her eyes to the table and the pigeon. Wedged under the ping-pong table net was the egg-ball and the pigeon was marching up and down the table surface, chest puffed out, head cocked to one side, eyeing the ball; checking different viewing angles and arguing with itself over the best way to approach it and sit on it.

As Agatha watched, the pigeon appeared to decide that there was no best way and the only way was to take a run at it, flip over backwards at the last moment and reverse as fast as possible on top of it. The egg-ball, if you remember, was wedged under the net – unfortunately for the pigeon, a ping-pong net, if stretched, behaves like a length of springy elastic. A pigeon rocket launcher, if you like.

A long blue shoe-lace had blown (!) overnight onto the table and become tangled (!) in the net (… 2 x ! = Lucretia, surely?) One end now hung down over the edge of the table and flicked temptingly against Agatha’s fingers. (Or did Lucretia place it into her hand?)

Do I need to tell you what happened next? Can I leave you imagining it until tomorrow?

Chapter 8: Pigeon rocket

Have you ever watched someone’s face change from glee to horror? Quickly. Agatha’s did. She had hauled down on the blue shoelace, leaning back into her red wellies to pull with her full body-weight. She waited for the pigeon to make a dash at the net. She waited for it to spin round and reverse it’s rear end over the ping-pong ball-egg. She timed the release perfectly. Did you know that pigeons can scream? I didn’t either. And they can’t. But what I heard was so close to a scream that it might as well have been. Pigeons normally fly at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (which is pretty fast … faster than you can run or cycle. Faster than a dog can chase a ball. Faster than a sledge going down a snowy slope. Faster than an elephant charge and astonishingly about the same speed as a running cheetah). But this poor pigeon was slicing through the air at a flying speed more sleek, out-for-a-relaxed-but-still-speedy-jaunt, peregrine falcon than rotund, lazy, London pigeon. It took about a tenth of a second for the expression on Agatha’s face to change. The net catapult had aimed the pigeon straight at the stone fountain in the middle of the north-west corner of Paternoster Square. Lucretia’s pigeon would be smashed into pigeon jam.

Hmm … pigeon jam? You’ve probably gathered that I like food. A lot. I dream of food. I float above food and ‘breathe’ in the smell of food. Okay, I’m obsessed with it. I haven’t tasted it for so long! I bet you’d be the same if it was over a hundred years since your last slice of crisp apple. Or steaming jam pudding. Or oozing soft boiled egg with a sprinkle of salt. Or bacon. Even vegetarians are moved by the smell of bacon. But pigeon jam. That doesn’t make my insides rumble. Not that I have any actual insides to rumble, but I think about it and imagine them rumbling. No, pigeon jam does not appeal. At all. I envisaged the mess of pigeon jam and shut my eyes. Which explains how I missed the pigeon missing the fountain and …

But first I have to paint a picture of the pigeon. To make sure you understand what happened, properly.

Try to see in your mind’s eye … for you do have one … a greyish bottle, narrow at the front, heavier at its rear, hurtling through the air at close to 100 miles per hour. Next full the bottle with slightly gloopy white acrylic paint. And squeeze it gently as it flies. That was Lucretia’s pigeon – grey and extruding a continuous line of white excrement as it crossed the Square from ping-pong table to near annihilation on the stone fountain. Only it didn’t annihilate itself. At the last moment, I was reliably informed later, by a smug Lucretia, a wing suddenly shot out. The pigeon missed the fountain and continued it’s speedy trajectory … a guano-streaming trajectory … straight towards a busy restaurant and a table on a pavement.

Pigeon-poo scored a continuous line up the side of a pram and over it’s hood, which had been shut against the threatened rain; it ran the length of a hairy grey dog, from tip of tail to end of twitching nose; and it ran up the dark wool coat of a seated judge, over his balding head, down his pink, slightly lumpy nose and across a forkful of sausage, just as he lifted it mouth-wards. For months afterwards, he would relate to dinner guests, details of the surprisingly flavoursome and acid-sharp taste and gloopy texture of pigeon poo, quite oblivious to their expressions of disgust and cutlery lowering, bubbling-to-the-surface nausea. In case you’re wondering, he claimed the poo tasted a little of chips, a little of redcurrants and was full of tiny seeds. I wouldn’t recommend you try it for yourself. The judge wouldn’t either – the twenty four hours off work with tummy ache, were an expensive consequence of his unexpected breakfast sauce.

As I tell you this, Paternoster has a face like thunder. He was a judge once upon a very long time ago and he was particularly angry that Lucretia’s meddling upset the poor fellow. It wasn’t just the poo-eating. Oh no. Although, that was probably the worst bit. No … no, no … there was more.

A very messy more.

Which will have to wait till tomorrow.

Chapter 9: A pigeon in a beard tree

Hah! If you thought yesterday was messy, just read to the end of today.

What is the messiest you have ever been? Have you ever fallen – splat! – into a muddy puddle? Or rolled across a rugby pitch on a wet Sunday afternoon, after watching a match in the rain without an umbrella? Or helped a baby eat a dripping ice-cream covered with chocolate sauce and raspberry sprinkles on a warm, sunny afternoon? Or eaten spaghetti and Italian tomato and basil sauce with your fingers because you can’t find a fork and you’re hungry and taking last night’s spaghetti to work had seemed like a good idea first thing in the morning, even if it didn’t appear to be such a good idea now, especially as your shirt was white and you know that tomato stains are really hard to get out? Well … imagine rubbing all those muddy, watery, creamy, chocolatey, tomatoey messes together. Add a dollop of warm pigeon poo and that would be about right for the mess that presented itself to the judge – and all over the judge – that Monday morning.

No … okay – he wasn’t muddy. As … yes, okay – again… he was in a London Square and there was no mud. And – you’re right again – it was breakfast and there was no ice cream or chocolate. But there was definitely a lot of water from the jug the pigeon knocked over. And the spilt coffee was brown, and its spatters were very similar to mud spatters. And there were tomatoes. The pigeon was sitting in the tomatoes.

The mess and the judge erupted. I could have said exploded. But it was much more than that. The judge rose up out of his chair which clattered to the ground behind him. He was spitting, and frothing at the lips. The fork which had just deposited pigeon poo into his mouth, was furiously and frantically, flung away. It rolled through the air, spinning over and over like an escaping ferris wheel.

The judge roared a most un-gentlemanly roar. I guess that a grizzly bear who’d got his foot stuck in the picnic box he’d just been robbing and juice from the home-made lemonade someone had packed for their day in the country splashed in his eyes, would make a similar roar. The judge’s roar rippled out, hitting against other people eating at the restaurant tables, making them in turn stand and push away their chairs and shout and yell and scream.  And fling their arms around, propellor-fashion, in case there were more pigeons.

No more pigeons came.

The judge collapsed back into a fresh chair, hastily repositioned by a waiter, who was flapping at the pigeon with a napkin – not very successfully. If his aim was to scare the pigeon he  clearly didn’t appreciate that the pigeon couldn’t be more scared than it was already. It didn’t fly off. It sat like a brick; the only thing hinting that the flight hadn’t killed it being it’s bulging eyes rolling jerkily out of sync with each other.

Unfortunately, the judge was a man with a prominent, and very full, bushy red beard – it looked like a red squirrel had curled up and was clinging onto his chin. I’m not saying that there is anything unfortunate in having a beard. Nor in it being red. But it was the having of a beard at all, on that Monday morning, that was indeed unfortunate. For the judge.

In particular, it was the tempting bits of breakfast caught in the curly hairs of the beard that were most unfortunate. Add to this that he sat down at the same table, where the pigeon was just beginning to re-animate and focus. Its feathers were feeling a bit damp and temptingly tomato-ey. But not as tempting as the bacon-ey smell emanating from a reddish cloud near its beak. The level of the judge’s unfortunate-ness was about to peak.

When they’re not scared into imitating bricks, pigeons have beady little eyes that dart around until they see something they like the look of. Lucretia’s pigeon’s eyes were rotating more slowly than usual after their rocket launch, but they suddenly slid to a shaky stop and blinked, slowly focusing on a piece of bacon and a bean just beyond easy pecking distance.

One bounce freed the pigeon’s feet from the squashed tomato.

One flap of wings lifted it just high enough.

One landing tangled its feet in the judge’s red beard.

And two pecks and a swallow ate the bacon and the bean.

What of the fork? Remember … it was spiralling away through the air.

I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Chapter 10: Forked

Have you heard the expression every cloud has a silver lining? Personally, I prefer the bicycle with the puncture sometimes wins the jersey. Both refer to times when things turn out better than expected. Times when the opposite happens. Times when the opposite is good.

Every morning, during the week before that Monday, a young man-giraffe, called Hugo, had stumbled across the Square. He muttered as he hurried along on his too long legs, with his too long neck and arms that looked like he didn’t know where to put them. One day – it may have been a Tuesday – he was carrying a pile of books; the next, it was a large brown envelope that flapped like a small owl in his hand; and on that Monday, he carried a black umbrella and a small navy box, with a gold line running round it.

His knees were wet. His hair – despite the umbrella which he held out to the right, then out to the left; then hanging down at his knees but never over his head – was a steaming pile of thick dark curls. A drop of water clung to the end of his nose. He crouched looking for something. Then stood. Took two ginormous giraffe-like (… he wasn’t, of course, really a giraffe) steps (Paternoster says I didn’t have to point that out; I disagree. I can’t have you thinking I’m seeing giraffes, carrying umbrellas, on bicycles, in central London!), then crouched down again. He bobbed up and down like this, from one side of the square to the other, like a cork on a stormy puddle.

He approached the pavement restaurant with his bottom in the air.

A bottom that was a perfect if unintentional target for a flying fork.

It stopped mid-spin as it embedded its tines in his trousers. His arms plus umbrella jerked out to his side like the sudden springing open of bat’s wings and quivered in pain. Then one arm bent and his fingers caught the cold steel handle. He pulled it out and his knees crumpled. Still wincing and rubbing his right buttock, his face flushed red as he tossed the fork angrily, up into the air. As he threw it, a spark of light shot out from beneath a plant pot near his left knee. He pounced. His ring! The ring he would give to Heather, the office librarian, at lunch-time, later on that same Monday.

He unfurled a long sigh and smiled. And the world flicked it’s on switch, illuminating the commotion around him: a pigeon had landed on someone’s plate and the someone was making a terrible roaring fuss about it. He flicked the switch off, this world wasn’t his problem.

But Hugo was wrong. This world was his problem. He had strayed into it and it had made him a character in its story and it now followed him to his bicycle. Where he discovered that the story had embedded the fork in the tyre and the tyre was flat.

So far so unfortunate. So far no sign of any silver lining. Or any jersey.

If you are thinking ‘poor Hugo,’ you would be forgetting that things sometimes happen for a reason. Heather had, unknown to Hugo, accepted the job of chief office clerk in Melbourne, Australia. She was fed up with gangly, clumsy Hugo and his bicycle and embarrassing umbrella – who, apart from Hugo, carried a black umbrella with Mickey Mouse ears into the office kitchen and hung it on a cupboard handle where it dripped, like a regular beat of a snare drum, onto the biscuit tin? She was looking forward to spending time with normal Nigel, a tall sporty Aussie, whom she had met at her job interview.

Poor Hugo had to push his bike back to the office. And he still had the umbrella to carry. And the box with the ring. And he wobbled. Terribly.

He wobbled and wobbled until he fell over. Actually, Molly made that happen – she won’t let me tell you how, as it would get her into trouble and Molly is never in trouble. What matters is that Hugo fell and landed flat on his back in a puddle. When he looked up, a grey stork, in a cycle helmet, was gazing down at him. Long and skinny and clad in grey and yellow lycra, she examined his face and laughed “Hugo? It is Hugo, isn’t it?”

Well, you can guess the rest. From the start: Agatha catapulted the pigeon; the judge threw the fork; the fork landed in Hugo and he tossed it and it punctured his tyre; Hugo fell over and was rescued by a fellow cyclist; Heather went to Australia where Nigel was into fishing and after three months Heather decided that fishing was even more boring than cycling and she started dating a weather anchor-man called Mike; and the giraffe and the stork put the fork in a wooden frame and they cycled together, happily ever after. In matching lycra jerseys.

As for Agatha, her mother – blind to all that had happened – scooped her up in a hurry and dragged her off to her aunt’s.

As for us, we waited – as rain cleared the Square – for Agatha to return.

We didn’t realise that we were also waiting for Paternoster’s burp …

Chapter 11: Guilt

Molly is feeling guilty. About yesterday and nudging Hugo in the direction of a happier fate.

As you know, she actually nudged him into a puddle, but that is not the point. And it is not Paternoster’s point. The puddle episode meant that he met the stork girl and meeting her sealed his future happiness as securely as wrapping it in rainbow-coloured paper and tying it up with silver string. But he shouldn’t have landed in the puddle. He shouldn’t have been happy. That wasn’t the plan for him. He was destined to have his heart broken by Heather. If it hadn’t been for Molly’s nudge … and Lucretia’s meddling which resulted in the fork and the flat tyre … his fate would have been entirely different.

We are NOT meant to change fates. Because changing fates changes history. The children that Hugo and the stork-girl had – a lanky clutch of three – would not have existed. A tall dynasty

that would have measurable effects on everyone they met. That might one day impact on the future of the world. Imagine one of their descendants being an Einstein or a Hitler or a Dickens and you’ll see what I mean.

We CAN move things. We can startle pigeons and make a fox scared of its own shadow. We can make lights flicker and fog billow and swirl like it’s alive. And we can whip up bubbling froth on the surface of a puddle. We can do all of these things … and Paternoster seldom disapproves because none of them does any harm. But altering fate – that’s entirely different. Once changed, it can’t be reversed. If it turned out bad, I’m not sure we could bear the consequences. Molly knew this. But she still nudged Hugo.

Molly has just spent an uncomfortable few hours with Paternoster and she has promised never to do it again. Not before the next time anyway. It’s a really difficult balance – to change someone’s life for the better or risk stepping back and leaving it a miserable and unhappy voyage. It’s a choice we’ve all, at times, wished we didn’t have. Perhaps, heart broken, Hugo would have written a best-selling book that might have helped others. Perhaps, on the other hand, he and the stork girl might change history themselves. Perhaps, it is something we can’t ever know. What might have been; what the new fate will be. Maybe, we shouldn’t interfere. But – but – but … wouldn’t you like to know that we are looking out for you and for your fate and that we can change it if we can make it better? … see what I mean by difficult!

Paternoster had a busy morning. He was doubly cross – first Lucretia, and then Agatha and the Red! red wellies, and then Molly and the puddle. A doubly cross Paternoster is a sight to behold. In fact, it’s impossible to behold. When he’s that cross, Paternoster shimmers. Static electricity blurs his outline and he becomes a mirage of himself. He talked at Molly. Then he talked at us. Quiet rage arced below his surface. Then vented out of him in the champion burp that started this story.

When the burp fumes cleared, we rested our bruised backs against the cool water of the Paternoster Square fountain. And watched the silent footfall of people passing through the Square. And Agatha who had returned and was chasing a ping-pong ball. And her mother who was hiding hot tears.

I need to tell you more about us and how we came to be here. That will help to explain what happened next. Why Agatha’s mother was crying. And how Paternoster … Paternoster! … chose to alter fate and tried to cover up what he had done. And how a wooly hat, a stray dog and a mug of hot chocolate righted a terrible wrong. Come back tomorrow and I’ll start to tell you.

Chapter 12: Barnabas

Now it’s my turn to feel guilty. I’ve left it awful late to start telling you the next bit of our story and – precisely because it’s so very late – I won’t be able to tell you much.

I guess the sooner I get on with it the better.

I guess you’ve noticed this chapter is called Barnabas.

And I guess you remember that Barnabas is me.

I am Barnabas. The Barnabas of Paternoster Square. The waif with the golden hair. And the blue eyes. And the nose that looks longer than it should be. I’d make a good bird. The sort with a thick, stubby beak, more sparrow than woodpecker, more bull-finch than wren. I’m too intelligent to be a pigeon but too slow to be a hawk, and too small to be a swan. Plus I can’t swim. I hate water.

I drowned.

Just thought I’d drop that in now. Get it out of the way. When I was alive, I couldn’t swim. I worked in the docks – they’re all gone now. One day, I was shifting bags of sugar – carrying them from the quayside to the boy in charge of the ship’s deck. He was perhaps only a year or so older than me, but even if I’d climbed onto three bags of sugar, the sweating, darkly curled, top of my head, wouldn’t have reached his shoulders. He was Goliath and I was no David.  He threatened to knock me senseless if I didn’t work faster. I didn’t point out to him that if he hit me, the speed of my working would drop to zero. So I hurried. In the rain. Up and down oily planks. On and off the ship. On and off. On and off. Getting tireder. And wetter. And colder. Until I didn’t care. I couldn’t feel my feet. My teeth had gone beyond chattering. My fingers were sticky from the wet sugar. And then I fell. Into the dark canyon between the ship and the dock-side. I plunged head first straight into the stinking, black Thames. It was winter. Freezing cold. Goliath was being yelled at by the dock-master. No-one noticed I’d gone.

I drowned. And that was that.

I haven’t quite been here ever since, but so nearly as to not matter. I try to forget where I was before I found Paternoster … or he found me … and I came to live here. I’m glad he brought me here, because the watching is first rate. And the food! Aaah! – the food smells and the food-watching within a mile of Paternoster Square are incredible; they make my heart sing (not that I have one, but you know what I mean).

In this part of London, the people-watching is sublimer than … ? Than … than the view from a deck-chair in Monet’s French water-garden, on a summer’s afternoon, lazily counting the lilies, while electric-blue dragonflies dip and skim the water. One of my current people-watching favourites is Harry. I guess he’s about I-know-what-I’m-doing-even-when-you-think-I-don’t-and-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway seven. He’s cool, but it would be a bad idea to tell him so. He’s savvy, but again I’d counsel against telling him. I’m not sure if he’s lost the ability to see us or if he can, but chooses not to and instead, ignores us.

Harry carries a Harry bag; always. It’s a small brown satchel, covered in stickers. With three leather luggage labels, each with a photograph. The red one is of Harry playing tennis. The other two are of famous tennis players and have Wimbledon in gold letters stamped diagonally across the leather. Whatever time it is, or day it is, or time of year, Harry has a tennis ball in his hand.

Did I just write ‘in his hand’? It would have been more accurate to state not in his hand. It’s either bouncing … on the ground or against a wall, or it’s in the air. He tosses it out of his left hand and mimes a windmill with his right, but his right hand never catches it and he always misses. Paternoster says he’s swerving. Molly says it’s serving. But Paternoster says that’s what you do with food. Hmm … Whichever it is that he’s doing, he does it all the time. I hope he puts it in his pocket when he gets to school.

He also puts sweet wrappers in his pocket. He’s like a magpie – anything bright and colourful flitting about on the ground, he scoops up, examines and smooths and folds and slips into his pockets. I once saw his father tower over him, early one drizzly morning, like a … and here, I apologise because I realise I have a bit of a theme developing – I’m stuck on bird similes … but his dad did look startlingly similar to a vulture. Long grey coat, long neck, long nose and a shoulder hunch that could audition on its own for the part of Notre Dam’s hump-back on the West End. Anyway, on that drizzly morning, with rain-drips skiing down his nose, Harry’s vulture father made him empty all his pockets into a bin. Every last bit of paper foil; even the gold sheet that had started Harry’s collection – the one that he held up to his father’s face as a single tear spilled over his lower eyelid and started to roll down his cheek. The one that he crumpled in his hot fist before he let go and dropped on top of the others. The one that he went back for later and unfolded on his knee and smoothed with his thumbs and slipped back into the zipped pocket on the inside of his jacket.

Why does Harry collect sweet wrappers?

And what does Harry have to do with our story?

Well, we people-watch and Harry is one of the people I watch and if I hadn’t been watching Harry, I may not have seen Patrick and his scrawny dog.

Patrick wore a wooly hat.

He and his dog were invisible.

Chapter 13: Patrick

I know what you’re thinking. A man and his dog cannot if they are a – man – and – his – dog be invisible. That he is a man and his dog is a dog, by definition of the word is suggests that they exist and are not figments of your or my imagination. Is has weight. Is is being. And things that are in possession of being are visible. Generally – when we are … exactly what, I’m not sure … it means we exist; I write therefore I am, as someone once said. But we – us waifs – we are actually invisible. This doesn’t apply to Patrick and his dog. They are not dead. So they cannot be invisible. I must be wrong to write that they are. Sadly, however, I am not. For as surely as being actually invisible, Patrick and his dog go utterly unnoticed, overlooked, and ignored and are thus invisible to most of the people crossing Paternoster Square.

The dog is old … no, he’s ancient … arthritic and the colour of murky night; not quite grey, not quite black, with white hairs around his muzzle like he’s been snaffling sugar out of a sugar bowl. He’s old but still carries his head with an inquisitive dignity. A handsome, gentle boy – once a stray – who walks slowly, unleashed, at Patrick’s shuffling pace. Always attentive and always watching.

Patrick, as I said, shuffles. It’s the dance of very old men. Inside his heavy, green, fraying jacket, if anyone cared to look, the shuffling makes an angular, silver medal, hanging from a short ribbon, bump against his thin chest. But no-one does care to look. Patrick wanders across the Square most days, sometimes stopping for a coffee. He never drinks it inside and I have often wondered if he bears the cold in order to sit with his dog’s muzzle resting on his knee and his hand resting on the dog’s head. I would if a creature loved me as much as Patrick’s dog loves him.

In many ways Patrick and Harry are alike.

Both carry satchels. Both satchels are leather and brown: one has a patina that can only be acquired after many decades of knocks and scratches and is softer and smoother than old skin deserves; one is covered in stickers and filled with school books and crayons; one is filled with graphite pencils, charcoal and sketching pads.

Of Patrick and Harry, one inhabits a world where his head tells him stories about monsters and goblins and strange faces that inhabit the windows; one lives alone but tells himself he is not lonely. How can you be lonely in a city full of people and the stories those people try to hide but wear thinly on their shoulders, visible for anyone to see who knows how to look?

Patrick may be invisible but he sees people. He draws their stories – candid portraits which perhaps are good precisely because they don’t notice him.

Harry noticed Patrick.

Both noticed me.

How do I know?

Patrick’s drawing of Harry: small satchelled boy, hand open to catch a ball that’s just rising from a short bounce and a face – my face – watching in the polished stone of the building behind him.

This was a surprise. Had Patrick always seen me? On all those days when I’d watched him watching others and sketching.

How did I know that Harry saw me?

When he looked at Patrick’s drawing – just before Agatha’s mother screamed – and saw my face and said nothing. It was the saying nothing that told me he saw me.

Chapter 14: Caractacus Potts

Before I tell you more of our story, I must first tell you a portion of another.

The other is quite different to ours; it’s about a flying car, a mad inventor called Caractacus Potts, and a Baroness who hates children. It isn’t real. The car and the characters are made up by an author called Ian Fleming. You’ve probably heard of James Bond. The same writer made him up, too.

I suspect there’s a fair chance you’ve also heard of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the name of the flying car. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that the Baroness employs the most evil man in the history of cinematic storytelling. A night-time creature, more of a monster than a man. Dressed in raggedy black clothes, all spindly long legs and thin arms, he high steps and tip toes, creeping in the shadows like a giant, hypnotically-graceful spider. He is the child catcher. Tempting innocent gullible children with sweets and trickery. Children are snatched and banished to a vast, terrible prison in a cave. Fleming’s story leaps from love to adventure and back to love again and the children are rescued and the evil Baroness and her child catcher caught. Cractacus, a bit like a sugar-coated 007, armed only with sweets and witty inventions and daring pranks, eventually saves the day.

The child catcher though, remains the sinister stuffing of nightmares. Children wake screaming, afraid he might poke a pointed foot through their window. Parents berate themselves for being irrational, when their daytime nightmares put their brains on high alert and they scrutinise every footpath and garden and Square for strangers who might be a child catcher.

Remember that Agatha’s mother had been crying? Families often hide terrible secrets – sometimes these are called skeletons-in-cupboards. The skeleton in Agatha’s family was that Great Aunt Agatha wasn’t Great Aunt Agatha at all. Instead she was Great Grandmother to our little Agatha and grandmother to little Agatha’s mother. Which is all rather complicated and rather sad and had a lot to do with shame and embarrassment at a time when shame could create great holes in families.

Remember that Agatha’s mother screamed? When Harry saw me in Patrick’s drawing.

She screamed because she feared the child catcher. And little Agatha had gone.

Chapter 15: A child catcher?

Two things happened when Agatha’s mother screamed.

First, everyone and everything on Paternoster Square froze. And second, what had been invisible suddenly became starkly, glaringly, point-at-it-and-judge-it visible.

It was as though two switches had been flicked, simultaneously. The first dimmed slowly as though on a timer, as heads turned to glare at the only other child in the square and the disheveled tramp talking to him. The second lit up the tramp brighter than an interrogator’s lamp.

People started to shout and run. Hands grabbed at Harry and pulled him away. His father was found and the boy pushed into his arms.

A paper page ripped. Rough hands dragged Patrick to his feet and he stood unsteady in the centre of a gathering crowd. He was their child catcher. More fragile than they had imagined. Swaying like the broken branch of a tall tree; waiting at any moment to crash to the ground and splinter apart into the instantly forgotten fragments of a forgotten life. Fingers prodded at his coat and pockets. The contents of his satchel were spilled on the ground. And his sketches of faces and buildings and children held up for all to see. They only saw the drawings of the children. A police-woman arrived on a bicycle and held Patrick’s arm until a car arrived to take him away.

Not speaking to anyone for months had robbed Patrick of the words he needed to protest. As he shuffled away, a broken puppet between to burly heavily armed police puppet masters, he stopped briefly and turned. His eyes found his dog’s and he told him to “Stay.”

Thus a terrible injustice was observed by Paternoster. And he made his first move to correct it. The judge – remember him? – had been crossing the Square and would have missed the tableau had a puff of wind not blown a sheet off the top of the pile of papers he had been carrying.

Paternoster’s second move came later. First, he sent us out to hunt for Agatha.

He told me to visit Silas.

Silas. The reason I choose not to dwell on my past.

Silas. Why did it have to be me?

“Because you know the Underground tunnels. You know St Paul’s station. You know where to find him,” replied Paternoster.

Silas …

Chapter 16: Silas

“‘Ere he comes! ‘Ere he comes. A rat crawlin’ back to ‘is sewer.

Did you fall out with Mr. High-an’-Mighty up there – what’s his name? … Pater-noise-ter. You’ve got some bleedin’ cheek comin’ back ‘ere. Must ‘ave lost your mind, eh? Don’t you remember? You’re not welcome ’ere! You’re not wanted. Not now. Not … never! So go on. Disappear! No one wants you. Hey! … Hey, why don’t you become A Disappeared? Haha! Hahahahaha! Or are you too scared. Ye-e-es! You are! Ha! Too SCARED! Go on. Do us all a favour. DI-SA-PPEE-AH! Before I run you out of ‘ere. … Or ‘ave you forgotten … what run you out of ‘ere means? Eh!? D’you rememb-ah … the trains … an’ the tunnels? Ye-e-e-es … See? You do rememb-ah!

What? Why you ain’t sayin’ nothin’? Eh?! Why? ‘As that Mr. Pater-nosey got yer tongue? ‘As he? ‘As he?!

I swear you’re scaredier and uglier than you were before. You always were a fearful ugly, ferrel, pointy-faced, little rat!”

That was Silas. Speaking to me. On a good day.

Except it wasn’t a good day.

Because Agatha was missing. And because Paternoster had sent me to see him – Silas.

Not that anyone ever saw Silas very clearly. Maybe, because – in his tunnels – it was murky and dark. Maybe, because he was nearly Disappeared himself. And that frightened him so much that he never let anyone see how far he was gone. Perhaps one day, all that would remain would be his voice – ranting and insulting and roaring – before that too faded away to nothing. If Disappearing wasn’t so dreadful, I’d almost wish it for him. But it is absolutely dreadful and I’ll therefore stop mentioning it.

I waited for him to finish and into the nervous silence that hovered between us, I tossed my message from Paternoster. And waited. Ready to brace myself against the torrent of abuse that I fully expected in response.

The torrent never came.

Instead, Silas howled until his breath ran out. Then he made a noise that sounded like the turbulent fury of water suddenly bursting through a dam and choking the banks of a stream. I couldn’t tell if he was sobbing or having some form of fit.

Other waifs appeared and soon a small crowd had gathered; all were peering through the gloom in the direction of the horrible sound.

Silas stopped howling. Abruptly. He noisily drew breath and spat out orders to his audience; his words came jerkily at first, then he gulped and belched loudly – after that they rattled off the tunnel walls with brick-dislodging velocity.

He knew Agatha. He knew her mother. That was why he’d howled.

He had seen Agatha come into the underground station.

Alone.

She had been following a woman wearing a similar blue trench coat to her mother’s. So her alone-ness had gone unnoticed; even by Agatha, herself.

Agatha and the young woman had got onto a train. Central Line – heading West.

“Go find ‘er!” screamed Silas.

Chapter 17: Mungo

Sorry about all the names I’m throwing at you; Patrick, Silas, Mungo, the judge … actually, I don’t know the judge’s name, so that’s not one for your mind to juggle with. I like to keep all the names I know in the air and clutch at each in turn to examine it and find its story before throwing it back into play with the others. This time the name is Mungo; it’s his turn.

Mungo needs an intro-diddly-du’ … no – no, no he doesn’t; the diddly bit is too frivolous and Mungo is altogether too sad for diddly anythings. He needs to be plainly and solemnly introduced, as befits his solemn and faithful position. I say position because that is what he was occupying when his name first came to my attention. A very particular position. Unmoving – apart from the occasional scratch. Unflinching – except when a child’s scooter got too close and he summoned his arthritic stiffness to move out of her way. Uncomplaining. And utterly uncompromising – he even stayed in the particular position when a bowl of warm milk and bread was put down for him. And he waited for the bowl to be brought closer.

Patrick had told him to stay.

Staying was what Mungo was doing.

The invisible old dog – once a stray – was invisible no more. His staying did not go unnoticed.

The bowl of milk and bread was from the restaurant that had served the judge.

By the following morning, they had a new dog bowl and ‘dog food.’ Their chef had boiled up some bones and used the stock to make a casserole of meat scraps. To this, he had added a handful of dry dog cereal that he’d sent the kitchen boy out to purchase, from the small supermarket opposite St Paul’s. And this time, the chef took the bowl to Mungo and watched as the old dog stood, stretched and slurped down the food.

During the night, a sleeping bag and a tattered cushion had been put next to Mungo on the cold stone of Paternoster Square. And a scruffy looking young man and his back pack and his dog had sat close and kept vigil over him as he slept. I watched them all – all night – shivering, but relieved to be above ground, beneath the reassuring, unchanging, gently watchful twinkle of the stars.

Just the day before, I had been underground, in the airless tunnels of St Paul’s Underground Station, where Silas had screamed. His waifs had fled in search of Agatha. And I fled too. The less time I spent in Silas’s company, the less likely it was that he would remind me what run you out of ‘ere meant. As if I could ever forget something branded onto the folds and loops of my brain!

You know we can flow between bricks. I told you that when I established that you don’t. I knew you didn’t … or, I thought I knew that you didn’t, partly because I had no recollection of doing that when I was alive and also, because I’ve never seen one of you doing it; you’re too … too … solid! The flowing we do between bricks extends to joins in metal plates, but only where there isn’t a headache waiting on a welded seam closing the gap between the plates. And it includes air vents and open windows. All stuff of the childish games and chases and pranks we waifs sometimes play with each other. A sort of tag through buildings. When we’re bored with people watching. Or when none of you is doing anything interesting. You’ve no idea how boring watching a man read a newspaper can be. Or another office worker drinking another cup of coffee. Or a taxi driver sitting in his car waiting for a passenger. Or a child sleeping in his push-chair. Our version of tag is our way of staying alert when you’re being the opposite. We can’t risk being boring too. That would involve inertia. We can’t risk that. We have to stay alert. We have to watch for … I haven’t told you about that, have I? Why we are wakeful and watching all the time. Right now, it’s not important; the skies are quiet. I’ll put it off and tell you later. Just understand now that tag is well, … it’s the stuff we’ve been doing since … hmm … since the early days; just after we died. Silas, however, plays a different game.

In Silas’s sadistic version, a speeding train and a dark underground tunnel and crowds of living – squelchy – people and the threat of electric sparks and being forced to Disappear, are added to the chase. I would rather spend a year looking inside myself while standing in a trough of fungating pig-swill than risk playing Silas’s macabre game again.

Being underground had choked me. Beneath the stars I could breathe.

I told Paternoster that one of us had to watch over Mungo.

Molly was watching Agatha’s mother, so that she could tell us immediately if Agatha was found. Lucretia had gone to Holborn Station where a small girl had been seen getting off the train and talking to a young woman – I hadn’t heard if it was the same young woman in the blue trench coat similar to Agatha’s mother’s.

Paternoster was sticking very close to the judge; why, he wouldn’t say. He was happy for me to stay above ground. Watching the Square. Watching Mungo.

I was happy to think I was well out of Silas’s reach …

Chapter 18: Strangle-hold

“You have to come back! Silas wants to see you.”

‘What if I don’t want to see Silas?’ is what I thought but didn’t say. This was exactly what I had feared. Silas wanting me. My stomach … okay – so, I don’t have one, but you know what I mean! … churned. I didn’t want to see Silas. I didn’t want to be within spitting distance of him ever again.

Silas has perfected spitting. Not wet spits, not the ones you do. His spits hurt. They fire splinters and bits of grit and any small bit of rubbish he finds on the ground straight at you. Usually, they pass straight through and that hurts in itself, but sometimes they lodge in your clothes or on your hair and that’s when you realise that his spits don’t just hurt, they also reek. Think dog poo and a smell that gets up your nose and lingers and you’ll have an idea of how awful his spits are. And understand why it’s a bad idea to be within spitting distance of Silas.

There are many things I want and many I don’t. Seeing Silas is way beyond the top of the don’t want list. If I had skin – standing in front of that poor, quaking messenger – it would have been crawling. I didn’t want to hear more. I dreaded the words that might follow. Paternoster had ordered me to return. That was enough. Silas hadn’t issued an order. Wanting me to return though, was possibly worse; there’s more thought behind wanting, more raw emotion. Anything raw and emotional from Silas was destined to be worse than burning-the-roof-of-your-mouth-with-hot-soup or falling-into-the-Thames-when-you-can’t-swim bad. I started to shake my head and the waif-messenger, like a wretched mole shielding his eyes from the sun, started to cry. Then wail. Only Silas could do that to another waif. Only he knew how to torture another waif into that state of utter hopelessness. The pity that stood between me and the messenger waif was that I knew the feeling. The shame. The emptiness left behind by the loss of self. The fear, sitting heavier than an elephant crushing your chest, of being trapped for eternity with Silas in the London Underground tunnels.

“He can’t come up here his-self. You know he can’t,” he sobbed. “He wants you back. He said …”

I interrupted him; flushing at my own cruelty, “I don’t care what he said.”

“He said … He said ‘It’s Lucretia,” the waif continued. “Lucretia knows where the child is. Silas has Lucretia. Or had her,” he gushed, grimacing as if he suddenly remembered something.

Lucretia.

What did I just say about Silas not ordering me to see him?

Lucretia.

Now everything was different. And I knew that Silas had planned it this way.

He had issued an order. And finally, I’d heard it.

Chapter 19: Hope

Twenty hours may not seem like a very long time; less than a day. But in the life of a child whose days are full of dreams and games, it feels like a lifetime. And in the life of those missing her, it is an eternity.

A policewoman had taken Agatha’s mother home. The waiting was interminable and drowning in an ocean of tears.

The great aunt – who as we know, was not actually a great aunt but a great grandmother but for the purposes of this story will remain the Great Aunt – had been informed and rather than swooning or succumbing to a heart attack as the police officer delivering the news fully anticipated, had organised her neighbours into an army of septuagenarians to search that streets and shops and parks around Paternoster Square and St Paul’s. They reported back to her at regular intervals and each time she sent them further afield – to the gift shop selling crayons and paper and brightly coloured bags across the Millennium Bridge at Tate Modern; to the wide steps outside the west door of tSt Paul’s Cathedral where she liked to practice jumping, and to the warren of narrow streets between the cathedral and the river where her favourite sandwich shop had lollipops for little girls who said thank you – and to all the public toilets, she might have visited.

Paternoster Square was still bristling with police officers and tape and an incident van. Information requesting posters, like ineffectual sticking plasters dotted on the walls and pillars and doors abutting the Square, failed to make anyone feel better. People crossed the Square in silence, looking at their feet, hurrying; hiding their personal distress – pretending to themselves that the child catcher hadn’t really kept them awake all night and that they didn’t feel that they were now walking through their own nightmares.The sun shone but lit up nothing.

Patrick was struggling.

Paternoster had been to see him. Patrick’s an old man. He wasn’t allowed to sleep. The questioning went on for hours – well into the night. His drawings were seen as incriminating evidence. His open trusting nature was turning against him. They kept asking him where Agatha was. And he kept telling them he didn’t know. Yes, he knew who she was. Yes, he had sketched her in her new wellies. Yes, he knew she was missing. But the missing and him had nothing to do with each other. They tried asking their question in different ways – if he had wanted to take her where would he have hidden her. They told him they’d been to his house. They didn’t need to tell him that she wasn’t there. They wanted to know if he had any other properties, or keys to other buildings. As their questioning went on and on and on, he started to see things. He imagined a face – he’d seen others like it before – always in reflections, usually in windows, but when he turned to look behind him, as he often had, he had grown used to seeing no one there. He didn’t look behind him this time. He wondered briefly if obviously hallucinating might make the questioning stop. But he wasn’t that sort of person. He wouldn’t take the easy escape. He respected himself more than that.

The face he saw was of course Paternoster’s. Boyish, childlike but aged like a fading photograph.

Paternoster knew without any doubt that Patrick was innocent. He needed Patrick to see that. But what he saw in the shaking hand hesitantly straining to lift a glass of water to his lips, the stooped back and the dark shadows encircling his heavy eyes, was how much the old man was suffering. Paternoster couldn’t speak to Patrick, but he stared at him and held his gaze long enough to mouth ‘Mungo is okay’, which he repeated a couple of times until Patrick shut his eyes and the faintest of smiles flickered, fragile and fleeting, across his thin, pale lips.

Paternoster resolved to break his own rules; again. As he left Patrick, with a plan beginning to form in his head, he wasn’t aware that one more transgression wouldn’t be enough. It would require at least two.

Before I followed the waif who had summoned me with Silas’s order-that-masqueraded-as-not-being-an-order, I went to check on Mungo myself. The old dog was gathering friends. Jack was there again, with his dog and there were three others with him – two boys and a shy girl with blue eyes and hair the colour of corn. They had set up a sort of camp round Mungo with cushions and blankets and bags. A patio umbrella had been borrowed from the restaurant and was sheltering Mungo from the late morning sun. Someone had taken his photograph.

Agatha hadn’t been found but somehow the old dog, left behind in Paternoster Square, had become a totem of hope. It was clear that they were all waiting for the invisible man to come back – none of they suspected Patrick. Somehow they saw him reflected in Mungo’s eyes and they knew he was innocent.

Chapter 20: Underground

Two hundred and forty nine miles of tunnels is a lot of tunnels to search for a missing little girl. Silas wanted to boast that in less than a day his waifs had accomplished just that. They had been from one end of the tube system to the other. They’d looked on platform benches, in case she had fallen asleep. They’d searched loos and offices and lost property shelves. They’d looked in cafes and shops and on escalators and in lifts. They’d traversed every carriage of every train. And no trace of Agatha had been found.

What Silas could confirm was that she had, as hinted at before, got off the train at Holborn station and that perhaps two things had made her do so – the first was that she probably thought the blue trench-coated woman was her mother and the second was that she lives near Holborn Station and always … or as always as every Monday morning was always … got off the train there. Where she went after she exited the station, however, was unknown.

Do you understand supercilious and sneering? If you know one of those words, it is probably sneering – the nostril flaring, teeth baring, sharp-eyed staring, snarling grin that boasts I know more than you and I also know that you know I know more than you and I’m stronger than you and I pride myself in being deeply unpleasant and cruel. Supercilious means all of those things too, but in supercilious, they are laced with an air of righteous superiority that believes all others are inferior and in want of the plainest speaking in order to make them comprehend your very individual intellect and recognise your vital and supremely important needs. Silas was both sneering and supercilious – as if he was building a golden throne, high on an elevated stage, beyond reach of the station platform and its smog and damp and cold. He needed me to see his success. He needed his success to scald me; to slap me across the face with the sudden realisation of my grossly, inferior status.

It was perhaps a mistake to sneer back.

If a waif can jump, which is something we rarely do and therefore have little skill in doing, Silas executed the biggest leap I have ever seen; although, some claimed later that he fell off his throne. A sneer was absolutely not what he had expected from me. And it upset him. When I say upset him, what I mean is … well, imagine an underwater bomb suddenly going off and picture the sudden spume of water and foam flying into the air, and the pulsating waves of water flooding out from the epicentre. Picture the energy in that explosion and you will understand why I fell over. Which was unfortunate, because falling over meant Silas caught me. Of course, I don’t mean caught me the way you do – no hands holding a shoulder or arm locked round a neck; we can’t do that. No, he trapped me; got in my way. And one waif must never pass through another waif. Theoretically, I guess it is possible, but there’s an unwritten law which says it would be a violation that would force the Disappearing of both waifs. It wasn’t something I was prepared to risk.

I lay on the station platform waiting for Silas to decide what to do with me. The sign above the platform glowed orange – the next train was due in three minutes. The stomach I didn’t have started to tie a noose. Any colour I had left in my cheeks spilled onto the platform. I was about to be reminded what run you out of ‘ere meant.

Chapter 21: Disembodiment

There’s a bit in every story where the discerning reader thinks they’ve guessed what happens next and skips to the end because they are so sure they’re right that they can’t be bothered to read their rightness, or they are so fearful of what they have guessed that they can’t put the story down quick enough. This is one of those moments. Skip chapter 21 if you like. Chapter 22 is much gentler; softer, warmer and furrier. It will take you back up to Paternoster Square and sunshine and a gentle breeze and colours and blue sky and a faithful friend who is about to be paid handsomely for his patience and trust. Chapter 21, on the other hand, has its feet rooted in darkness and litter and lightning sparks of electricity and mechanical screams and dust and shuffling feet and sweat and Silas. When your feet are rooted you can’t get away. Silas took advantage of this. He took advantage of everything but most of all he took advantage of my fear. And he played with it like it was a porcelain feather – light enough to fly, fragile enough to smash.

Waifs can make each other move.

Oh dear … I know what you’re thinking: from all the things I’ve hinted at before, it’s obvious that we can’t make each other move – not physically. And you’re right … sort of.  We can’t push or shove or elbow another waif to make them move. That would be like … well, I don’t know what it would be like. I’ve never tried. I’ve never wanted to try. I’m pretty sure the laws of physics don’t apply to waifs; momentum is meaningless if you have no mass. And waifs if they ‘stood’ on a set of scales would certainly have no mass. We’d be weightless! Stuck in a vacuum of half-existence – more a memory of reality than reality itself. So pushing or pulling has no effect on us.

But the mind of a waif can force another waif to move.

If you were out for a stroll – sun just beginning to rise – light dancing on the leaves of the trees above – long grasses swaying gently in a breeze and brushing against your knees – insects beginning to hum and a few birds giving late voice to the dawn they’ve almost missed – and suddenly your eyes met the eyes of a big cat (cheetah, lion, tiger, leopard – it doesn’t matter which) – you would freeze and your eyes would hold the stare of the cat. How long could you hold that stare? How many seconds before beads of sweat formed on your head? Before the colour in your cheeks drained away into the earth? How long until you moved? It is just like this between waifs. This is how Silas made me move.

The train was roaring like a dragon contained in too tight a space as it entered the station. Silas flung me into the pressing tide of passengers and I was washed into the nearest carriage. He followed close behind. The doors closed and as the train started to move, Silas hissed “Run!”

Look back if you don’t recall and you’ll find I used the word squelchy to describe the living humans on a train. There’s no easy way to tell you this. Waifs are sometimes forced to pass through living humans. If a waif passed smoothly through you, you probably wouldn’t notice anything. However, you might if he or she was a bit clumsy about it. If he sort of fell through you. In a panic. As he tried to escape. Then you might notice a smell, or see a blurred image of a face that wasn’t yours in the carriage window, or experience a fleeting dream of thoughts that aren’t your own – an apple orchard, and a black and white cow and a woman with red hair wearing a once-white apron and cold, cold water and choking and a terrible pain in your chest.

When we pass through you, we don’t linger and we try to avoid taking anything. Sometimes, we see things – worry about an exam, a smile because your baby went into nursery happy without having a tantrum, words being practiced for a lecture, and lists, lots and lots of lists – phone mum; buy bread; cancel the milk; plant the bulbs; revise glaciers for the Geography test and make a list for next week. You’re all obsessed with lists. Maybe we were too. Anyway, we try not to take away the things that we see, partly because we don’t know what they are. If we took the picture of an electric-blue dragon fly that we saw, would that cause the man we took it from to forget to book the family camping and canoeing holiday, on the Dordogne River, in France, when he gets home from work and his commute on the train. Would a much repeated number – 56 – snatched from the head of a child make her fail her maths test? So, you see why we have to be careful.

It’s really hard to be careful when Silas screams ‘Run!’ at you and despite the noise inside your head telling you not to, you do. The other reason to be careful is that three squelches is all we get. Increase it to four and a waif Disappears. Normally, put a waif in a crowded room and there would be plenty of space to escape into. Like I’ve said before, we’re good at squeezing between things; as long as there is room for air to pass, we can too. It becomes a lot trickier when the room is travelling at thirty-or-so miles an hour and the people are packed-in like sardines in a can – which is a terrible cliche because the sardines in a can are surrounded by oil and even on a hot, sweaty day  the people crammed into a tube train are not oily wet. It would be better to suggest they’re like biscuits in a biscuit packet – though that implies they’re all crisp dry, the same size and brittle. How about crayons stuffed into a pencil case – different sizes, different colours, zipped in, bulging at the seams … yes? I think I like the crayons simile best. I also think I’m procrastinating. Maybe because I don’t want to admit what happened.

Chapter 22: Disembodiment … part 2

Okay, so I got it wrong. Chapter 22 is not the soft, warm and furry one. That will be Chapter 23. I think. So skip again if you don’t like risk and jeopardy and squelchy things.

Fleeing from something that gives you the heebie-jeebies is never accomplished in a dignified manner. Silas was giving me the heebie-jeebies with daggers attached. And I couldn’t run fast enough. I can never run fast enough. Running for a waif is the same as I remember running in a dream is for you. You know you want to get away, you know how but it feels like your legs are wading through treacle and you struggle to coordinate your feet going down, one in front of the other, as fast as you need them to. For a waif, the actual running bit – the physical stuff – is all in our head. We sort of see where we want to go and …well, I guess the best way of describing it is to say we flow in that direction. It’s really important for a waif not to get too tied up in the memory of feet and shoes and knees – that’s how to get flattened or squeezed or caught by the likes of Silas. Most of the chase is done in our heads. It’s a lot easier for the chaser. All he has to do is look where his quarry has gone and follow.

Just after the carriage doors hissed shut and Silas in equally hissy dissonance told me to run, I noticed an elderly lady gingerly fingering one of the vertical grab poles in the centre of the carriage. At least three young people, temporarily lost in a land of making lines out of colours while exercising their thumb muscles, could have stood, had they noticed the old lady, to give her their seat. But their alternative universes were all-engrossing and the old woman stood and wobbled and looked straight at me. Then at Silas.

I knew instantly, from the gold glow in her eyes, what was coming next and I looked myself into the space above and behind her head. She was an arynx. And Silas got the full brunt of her roar. It hit him in the centre of his chest. But stopped him only momentarily. His chest glowed white as he convulsed briefly. Then he turned to me with hot fury burning in his eyes; I had seen her and not warned him. She hit him again and again but with each new strike she grew weaker and Silas appeared to gather each hit into himself, consuming it and incredibly getting stronger with each convulsion. After six strikes, her knees buckled and she collapsed. A voice in my head told me to leave; quickly. So I did.

I turned and stumbled into a plumber. I know he was a plumber because I squelched him. He was an unhappy man – his invoices hadn’t been paid and he had to make good on a bathroom that had gone wrong and his mother was ill and he’d missed his son’s first football match because of the bathroom. I learnt all this in the fleeting seconds I squelched through his over-ripe body. Oh … is it not over-ripe as in dishevelled, and past its best? No … okay. What matters is I squelched him and this slowed my escape.

My heart was racing and a cold veneer of panic was clinging to my face. Get away! Get AWAY! I had to get away. I feared looking at Silas in case my addled, flighty, scared brain took me there. So I turned slowly and steeled myself to look, squinting through fingers covering my eyes.

Silas was trying to punish the arynx, blowing into her face and waiting for her to flinch. But her eyes remained shut. She was an arynx – she would never open them again. Silas should have known. Perhaps, choking on his own fury, he’d forgotten.

It was a window. A tiny momentary window of escape. I took it. Wind was passing bony fingers through my hair and I could smell the metallic gloom of the tube tunnel through the open slit in the carriage door. Old tube train carriages have the sliding doors that open onto the platform and small end doors that would allow free passage from one carriage into another, if they weren’t kept shut. A shut door with an open window is however no barrier to a waif. The only barrier is the mental one; the tunnels beyond are black, cold, lit with with arcs of sparking electricity and filled to bursting point with a wind that howls and sucks and blows and pushes and fights to escape like a furious trapped beast. And there are rats. Thousands of rats.

I hate rats. They hate waifs. Its a mutual hate-hate relationship. The only waif I’ve ever known a rat to like is Silas.

The tunnel sucked me into it, out of the rushing train, plunging me instantly into blackness.

I had a minute, perhaps two before the next train. I had to go back the way we had come. But it was so disorientating. My ears had to guide me. Until either my eyes adjusted to the dark or I saw some light.

We mythologise about seeing the light – it’s a powerful metaphor for those sudden bursts of inspiration that collide with our brains and drive us on to greater things. But actually seeing the light, even when you have been cloaked in absolute darkness for only a few minutes – and especially when you have no idea where Silas is – is pretty amazing; a ten-and-a-half out of ten on my amazing things scale. The faint glow from the distant station was properly the light at the end of the tunnel for me. It made me want to sing.

And scream. At the crowded, everywhere-moving, biting, scurrying, scrapping and snarling carpet of rats. And the approaching train.

Chapter 23: Disembodiment … part 3.

How close have you got to a spider? Or a beetle? Or a wasp? Are you a fascinated, if slightly creeped-out watcher? Or a panicked screamer?

How would you cope with a rat?

Or hundreds of thousands of rats?

Trapped by a train plunging down the tunnel towards me and Silas somewhere behind, I had no choice – I lay down on the writhing bed of rats and waited for the train to pass above me. That wait was probably less than a minute long. But that minute was probably the longest most dreadful minute I have ever experienced in my life as a waif. I was buffeted by the explosion of air from the train engine and assaulted by the clatter and scream of the wheels. The immense weight of metal racing along metal rails made the air fizzing hot. Really hot! And spark with arcs of friction like spumes of tiny shooting stars piercing the gloom.

The real horror though was my temporary, writhing, moving mattress. It had teeth. And claws. And a terrible, choking, urine-soaked pong.

I didn’t notice the  song of the rats until the train had passed. Imagine the sound of sticky, strings of slobber being licked off a thousand snarling ratty lips. And a high pitched constant squealing – rats don’t squeak. Rats squeal and snarl and bite. I took little comfort in the knowledge that for the rats biting me was a singularly unsatisfying experience, no better than biting air. The bites still hurt. Though it was more the thought of them that hurt. The imagined pain. The real sensation of teeth tearing where once I was cloaked with flesh. You never forget pain. Nor how to experience it.

I had two minutes grace before the next train. I had to move.

A sudden chill hit the tunnel and it shivered. Literally – the tunnel itself shivered. Or the life lining every inch of the tunnel shivered. Everything stilled. The rats paused in their tormenting of me. They sat up making the tunnel look like it had developed goose bumps, it’s hair standing on end. They listened. They waited. Silas must be near. Nothing else would cause the rats to hesitate like that. And scatter. They might respect Silas, like him even – in a hey-we’re-rats-and-hate-everything-and-are-scared-of-nothing-except-when-that-nothing-is-a-vengeful-cruel-taunting-and-awesomely-incredible-waif-called-Silas – but that didn’t mean they’d hang around to see him.

I found myself dumped in a thick layer of dust and rat droppings and sticky, wet, black slime. Silas was coming closer; I sensed him and shivered. Fight or flight? Silas always made me a coward. I chose flight.

The tunnels of St Paul’s Underground station lie one above the other; like the momentary meeting of two black snakes before they stretch out and slither away beneath the London streets. The station was built before the days of escalators, when the only way of accessing the tunnels was in lifts falling through vertical shafts. I hoped Silas didn’t know this. I wasn’t sure how I did. Perhaps, it was one of Paternoster’s stories. Somehow, his stories always had a hidden message or a lesson or something that might come in handy one day. I hoped this was one of those days.

I had to get myself near a lift shaft without Silas seeing. I had to make him think I was hiding. That I had run in a different direction. I knew that if I got to the surface, he wouldn’t – couldn’t – follow me there.

There was still the dim light filtering tentatively down the tunnel from the station. I went that way. I knew Silas would follow. I could hear the next train approaching as I reached the platform. People, like the foam at the edge of an incoming tide, lined their toes up along the yellow line painted on the platform floor. It was easy to weave in and out of their legs. Easy and distracting to Silas.

The tube doors opened and I allowed myself to be washed into the carriage. I checked that Silas had followed. He was grinning with his mouth but his eyes were black and filled with the hunger and hatred of a predator who knew he was winning but was disappointed that the chase had been so very, so boringly, so yawningly and so predictably e-e-e-e-e-eas-a-a-ay.

The doors closed and I started to flow; fast. I had to convince Silas that I had squelched. If I did then for a few seconds he wouldn’t expect to see me.

There was a mother with a small child in a stroller. She was bending over to pull one of the child’s arms back through the seat strap and was struggling because that’s not where the child wanted her arm to be. I blew gently on the child’s face and her eyes popped open and looked into mine. She froze and her mother won. Arm back in place the mother started to stand and I looked into the space between her shoulders and her backpack. The train jolted and I hoped Silas would think I had fallen into her.

One second passed.

Two …

None of the windows were open.

Normally, we have to see into where we’re going, so the ventilation grille was a huge gamble. I couldn’t see beyond the mesh. But it said ventilation and ventilation means outside air. And I needed to be outside. So in I went.

I couldn’t really have endured anything else. If I had stayed in the carriage it would have meant endlessly to-ing and fro-ing on the Central line with the risk of Disappearing. I wasn’t ready for that. If Paternoster keeps telling us his stories, I’m not sure I’ll ever be.

Anyway, it was a gamble that paid off. I found myself back on the platform as the train gathered speed and disappeared into the tunnel. I was alone. But I knew that if Silas followed me, he would look to the escalators first.

A locked gate and another metal grille – a larger one, easier to squeeze through – and a filthy vertical lift shaft. And fresh air. And sunlight.

And Patrick.

Chapter 24: Almost the furry one

Above ground. Another chapter. And two things spring to mind.

The first is that the Lucretia-bait that Silas used to get me back down into the tunnels wasn’t explained in chapters 21 to 23 and the second is Patrick and filling you in on his story. And the third … I’m a hopeless counter … is to update you on the Agatha situation; we think we know where she is. Because Lucretia was with her. And since she escaped from Silas and isn’t here, she might be back there, with Agatha. We just have to figure out how to tell one of you where that there is. It’s not a bad place. That I can tell you. It’s a surprising, obvious place – if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron. The fourth … you see! Bad bad counter! … is that the table tennis nets have been replaced! The actual netting ones were too dangerous to incoming pigeons, too altogether catapulty. Nothing’s going to be catapulted by the replacement, plastic ‘nets.’ They look like sheets of white gorgonzola, or is it edam – the cartoony mouse cheese with the round holes in it. Lucretia won’t be happy!

But first Patrick. Or is it second Patrick, since the Lucretia-escaping-from-Silas bit is mentioned in the paragraph above? I don’t know the details, but Lucretia is cunning and clever and gossip suggests her escape involved a door and a packet of crisps which sounds a bit too easy; there must have been more to it than that. Anyway, back to that first or second thing …

… Patrick coming up the steps out of St Paul’s underground station. Walking slowly. Past the man with the newspapers. Past the standing clusters of coffee drinkers. Blinking in the sun.

If you take a grand old tree and ring bark it – you weaken it. Ring barking cuts through the columns of rising sap in the bark and effectively strangles the tree, draining it of its life blood. The tree becomes stressed. It’s leaves fall early. It sheds unwanted branches. And starts to lean. Patrick had been ring barked. They’d cut away at everything he held true. He was stooped; as near to broken as a human being could be. He shuffled and stopped and touched his brow and shuffled again and stopped again. He looked lost. As though his head was stuck in its own private, heavy fog and he couldn’t see his way through it. If I could have taken his hand, or blown away the fog, I would have done. I hovered in front of him. I saw him look through me. Then squint, touch his brow again and focus. He blinked heavily and stumbled, too tired to yawn, too tired to write any expression across his face. Too tired almost to go on.

But he knew where he was going.

And his friend knew he was coming. Mungo sat where he had been told to sit. He quivered. And waited. Erect, head held high.

Chapter 25: Putting the pages back

If you rip the pages out of a book – what are you left with?

An empty book cover.

If you pull all the petals off a flower you’re left with no more wishes and no flower.

To be good a life needs words and hope. Words tend to fail when hope fails.

Patrick wasn’t quite without hope.

Or words; he muttered something quietly to himself as he shuffled along Paternoster Row. “Mungo … dear dear boy … good boy … Mungo …”

He was rehearsing what he was going to say if his dog was still there.

He looked at his feet.

He couldn’t look up.

The pound … some charity … a stranger … someone would surely have taken pity on the old dog. Taken him in. Taken him away.

Patrick slowly shook his head and stopped. He stooped, folding in on himself. Tilting his balance further and further over his feet.

A tear dropped onto his coat. Followed by another. And another.

He started to fall forward. Crumpling at the knees. Earth to earth, he thought. But this earth, he saw below him, was hard stone! He stopped himself. And teetered for a moment. With a huge effort, he pushed himself upright.

He would look now. He had to be sure. He couldn’t put it off any longer.

Mungo had pushed himself up too. He still sat but had elongated himself; his back was straight and his head held high. He was alert, and quietly regal. His tail began to sweep the ground, slowly at first, not quite believing what his senses were whispering, then as belief changed to conviction the tempo increased, swishing up dust and beating against the legs of one of his new homeless friends.

Dogs can’t really smile. But the brightness in Mungo’s old, teak-brown eyes and his slightly open mouth and the shivers running through his body could only be happening because of one thing – his heart was smiling; a vast, bursting, wide grin.

A sudden bark. And they were running. Like a boy and his puppy, they fell into each other. All around them people stopped what they were doing. And watched. And smiled. Then they clapped.

And several onlookers, including several waifs, shed several tears.

Chapter 26: Pigeon poop and dinner

Agatha … Little Agatha, or Young Agatha if you like … has been missing for almost 36 hours. But this chapter isn’t about her. Not yet – maybe chapter 27. Or 28. She’s fine. Or … hmm … I am led to believe that she’s fine; so I choose to think that she is. But I haven’t seen her. And until I do, I can’t be sure – can I? Lucretia says she’s seen her. Lucretia is in a LOT of trouble. She seems to have forgotten that people are suffering. And that it’s all her fault. Agatha’s mother is suffering the most – a toxic mix of fear and remorse. She can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t even remember her address when someone asks. She’s called everyone who knows Little Agatha. Old Agatha or Aunt Agatha and her posse of friends are still searching the parks and streets and gardens. But so far they have found no trace of the little girl. No clues. As time ticks by, their concern expands and pushes against the glass walls holding it in. There is a quiet, secluded place they haven’t looked. I need – somehow – to ensure they do. Patrick might help …

Patrick.

Patrick and Mungo. Who were sitting on a groundsheet, as their shadows lengthened, drinking tea and sharing cake with their new friends.

I never really explained who these friends were. There are many reasons for being homeless in London. About as many reasons as there are homeless people. A few choose to be, because life on the streets is easier than the torment and fights in the places they once called home. Most, though, are there because they have no-where else to be. Perhaps they lost all their money. Perhaps they never had any money. Perhaps their families lived too far away and travelling to them would be impossible. Perhaps they are so totally alone that they have become invisible. Invisible until we fall over them or notice their kindness to an old man and his dog.

I’m not going to pretend these new friends were a butcher, a baker and a candle-stick maker – no, that would be silly and untrue. They were an art student, a thief, and a candle-stick maker. Actually, she trained as a carpenter and cabinet-maker, but she has made candle-sticks in the past. Her name is Alice and she had assumed the role of mother to the little gaggle in the square.

Do you remember that I told you Paternoster would break his own ‘law’ again? The one where waifs tread lightly into the lives of the living and perhaps change history just a little bit. Well …

… and you haven’t forgotten the judge?

And his fondness for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. No? …aah …  you knew about his huge appreciation for all things breakfasty; well, now you know that it extends to lunch and dinner too.

Paternoster needed the judge to meet Patrick. Properly meet him, in a getting-to-know-all-about-him-and-in-knowing-him-to-feel-compelled-to-do-something-to-help-him sort of a way.

On three nights a week, the judge ate dinner at the same breakfast restaurant, at the same table, served by the same waiter who knew to bring him some sparkling wine, followed by a glass of claret and a steak and salad, without bothering with the menu. The judge would sit and eat and read his papers for the next day. No-one ever joined him. No-one interrupted him. The bill was presented and paid without a word being said. But not today. Paternoster needed today to be different.

So … and this is where you discover that Paternoster can be very wicked. What I mean is … I have to remember he might read this … what I mean is clever and naughty all at the same time. If you startle a pigeon, it poops. If you entice a pigeon onto a chair and startle it, it poops on the chair. If you squeeze the pigeon – gently of course! – while startling it, the poop is like an accident with a cupcake icing-nozzle and rises in decreasing, swirling whorls above the surface of the chair. Do this to several pigeons on several chairs and you create an area where it is impossible to sit cleanly.

The restaurant had promised Patrick dinner. For free. And the chef had prepared a ‘leeeetle some-sing’ for Mungo. The only un-pooped on seat was the one opposite the judge. Paternoster’s plan to have them sit together had worked. Now, he had to make them talk.

Dogs are very, very good at making people talk. Especially when coaxed into being especially adorable by the best efforts of a persistent, rule-breaking waif.

Chapter 27: Seeing things

Patrick poured his story out to the judge.

I could have written poured his heart out but as Mungo held Patrick’s heart that would have been difficult. Patrick’s was a story dominated by loneliness. And traumatised by war-time experiences so terrible that he couldn’t voice them even now. Only the fleeting, gossamer dance of pain across his face gave the merest hint of them, while his years of mental torment went unnamed, as he learned to carry across his shoulders, a burden of memories, like a bundle of blanketing shrouds wrapped in an impenetrable mesh of barbed wire. Years of sketching and painting and exhibiting and listing in catalogues of living artists had made his art work collectable. His pictures hung in small galleries and offices across the capital and in notable buildings in many foreign cities. But they were too disturbing to grace the walls of many homes. Recently, however, his loneliness had led him to look for peace and he had started people-watching. Sitting at the edge of the society that packed the streets. Seeing the myriad of lives hurrying past. An old man on a chair, with a cold coffee, filling his sketch book with the faces of strangers. And of children – which is what had got him into so much trouble.

As the two men talked into the deepening dusk, Paternoster hovered in the air, listening. It was going well; as planned. Not that he had planned anything exactly. His plans were more hopes; wished for things. A dream, perhaps, that the two men would connect and that good things would result from that connection.

What Paternoster didn’t plan was for Patrick to notice something about the way the judge sat. About the turn of his head and where his eyes darted to repeatedly and lingered. And for him to ask the judge calmly, “You see them too, don’t you?”

And for the judge to cup his hand round his eye, blocking his view of Paternoster and whisper, “Yes.”

It wasn’t as if Paternoster didn’t know that the two men could see him, it was more that people in his experience didn’t usually admit to seeing waifs. That way lay madness. Or so people thought. Seeing faces in windows and now Paternoster floating in the air near their table – surely these were hallucinations? Or not.

Patrick looked at Paternoster who smiled and then whistled. And Mungo sat up and wagged his tail. And looked up at Paternoster. So the dog was hallucinating too?

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 had seen and now saw Lucretia and Lucretia was intent on having a great time at the expense of many others. 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 wholly 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 Lucretia’s 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. Which they had but which didn’t explain the other in their three-way conversation.

With Paternoster thus employed, finding Little Agatha was 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 you – full-bodied, living, grown-up, non-waif-seeing beings – know where she was. Little Agatha you see … or you don’t see … had been playing hide-and-seek. I need to reverse time a little here – back to when she first went missing. She had been told by Lucretia to hide. I’m not sure who Agatha thought was doing the hide-and-seek 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 softer 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 skinny, Spring squirrel with a shrivelled, hibernation-hungry stomach, that’s just discovered a hollow in a tree, filled with soft downy feathers and hundreds of acorns and hazelnuts, 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 scary 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 that 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, using 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’d found in her pocket.

She had 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, muddy, 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 numbers beginning with seventy again.

Little Agatha thought 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 certainly 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 on 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 through London– 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, you see, 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.

Chapter 29: Lucretia

I may have said before that Lucretia is a minx.

No?

Well, when I say minx I mean the minxiest minx in the history of minxes. So naughty a minx that no other waif comes close. Silas is bad; not naughty. Naughty can sometimes get close to bad but isn’t wicked or mean. Silas wins prizes for being wicked and mean. Bad makes you cry and ties your insides in angry knots. Naughty on the other hand often makes you smile while tutting and perhaps suppressing a laugh. Naughty people are exasperating but loveable. But sometimes a month or two without them would be like seeing sun on a cloudy day.

As I’ve said before, Lucretia operates in a bubble. Sometimes bubbles within bubbles. Sometimes they need to be popped. Molly found her and Little Agatha and started to pop some bubbles. First to go was the Merriment one. Molly mentioned Little Agatha’s mum and Little Agatha started to cry. Tears, though watery themselves, will burst any bubble based on merriment and having a good time. Next to go was the bubble that Lucretia had built round Little Agatha’s appropriation of her friend, Uma’s, Wendy house – a bubble that had made her blind to the broken toys and the mess and the puddle in the garden and the plundered fruit and vegetables. She gazed in horror at what she had done. And her cheeks burned when she remembered the on-safari loo bucket in the sandpit. She could never tell Uma that it had been her. The only bubble left was the one holding the hide and seek game.

You know the game of hide and seek? One person counts while the other or others hide and then, when the counting has stopped, the hiders wait to be found. Yes? I thought you’d know it. I think everyone does.

Lucretia calls hide and seek the best game on the world. It got her out of many scrapes in the past. Little thieves have to be good at hiding. If not, they are caught and punished. Lucretia was a thief, of hearts and minds mainly, and she had learnt the arts of concealment and something called subterfuge – which occurs when you create a web of tricks and mirages to make it look like you aren’t doing what you are in fact doing. She did not like being punished. She was good at hiding.

Lucretia waited for Molly to say enough was enough. And to start planning how to get Little Agatha back to her mother. It was the how to get her back bit, without being caught and without getting Little Agatha into trouble, that gave Lucretia her big idea.

Molly, if she has any faults, is perhaps a bit too trusting. I thought she knew Lucretia better.

If Little Agatha, brightening up now at the talk of playing another game, could be persuaded to hide on her way from Uma’s house to her own, she might not get caught by one of the many adults who were out looking for her. Lucretia would help with the finding of good hiding places and to complete the illusion of it being a game, Molly would do the counting.

What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter 30: Hiding

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, on the pavement on the other side of the railing and thick hedge that formed the boundary to Uma’s garden. Little Agatha could adopt the camouflage of younger sibling and skip along in their midst. Hiding. 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 Little 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 memories 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 it, 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.

Well …

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!

Agatha!

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 – an idea – she hadn’t really meant to say it. She wasn’t sure that Agatha had even been listening. A flippant thought, cast into the air in frustration at failing to find a better hiding place. How would Agatha have climbed in without the bicycle toppling over? What if she had and the bicycle was travelling in the wrong direction? What if she was discovered beneath her coat and in the shock of discovery fell out onto the road?

“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. Very relieved. 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. Agatha hid and started to count. She paused once to ask Lucretia why she was counting and if they were now the seekers and if they were going to hunt for Molly next. Lucretia didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no; she mumbled something and Agatha continued to count. She got to fifty-nine when the door opened and the skater boy from upstairs emerged carrying his lime green skateboard and a large ruck sac. He stopped to put on his sunglasses as the door started to swing shut behind him and Agatha and Lucretia 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 crept 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.

And sleepy.

And trapped.

But she still had the boy’s phone.

Chapter 31: Max

“Hello. Hello-be-doe-bello … sshh … I be whispering. Hello? … Loo-cree-dee-ah, there’s no-body there.”

“There’s bloomin’ well somebody here! Come on guys – joke’s over. Time to give me back my phone!”

“Shh! … I’m not ‘guys’! You’ve got to shush – whiss-sss-per, like this. It’s not your phone. I did finded it. But … I don’t like the orangey colour. Or the horrid grey shape with eyes … It is mine now, you know. Loo-cree-dee-ah says you got to Shush. And I got to Shush too. Or I’ll have to turn you off. We must be quiet. Cos we’s hiding.”

“Eh … okay – what age are you?”

“I’s four and three quarters. Oops! Sorry Loo-cree-dee-ah … Sssssh!”

“Come on … you’re kidding me. Who is this?”

“I’s not kidding. Mummy says kidding isn’t nice. You really must shush … how do I turn him off Loo-cree- …”

“No, no, no! Don’t turn me off! Okay … so you’re four …”

“… an’ three quarters!”

“Four – and – three – quarters; okay. What’s your name?”

“Agatha … oh! Loo-cree-dee-ah says I shouldn’t have told you that. And we still have to shush.”

“Who’s ‘Loo-cree-dee-ah’?”

“She’s my friend. She’s hiding too. We’s both hiding. Together!”

“So, where’s that – where are you hiding?”

“I can’t tell you! Don’t you know how to play hide and seek? What’s your name? Is it meh … ah … kiss? That’s a funny name? … Oh – Loo-cree-dee-ah reads it Max. Is that your name?”

“Ye – I’m Max. Who’s looking for you, Agatha? Who are you playing with? Um – can I play? D’you mind if I find you?”

“Agatha?”

“… Loo-cree-dee-ah says there’s loads of people looking for me. I thought it was just Molly; she’s the seeking person. I don’t like this game anymore, Loo-cree-dee-ah. I want my Mummy … Max – Loo-cree-dee-ah says you can’t play. You can’t find us. She says I got to be ‘Shh!’ … I don’t want to be Shh! anymore … I don’t like this game … I think I’s going to be crying now …”

“Agatha! – Agatha, can Loo-cree-dee-ah hear me speaking to you?”

“Yes. She can hear all my thinkings.”

“Okay. Well … Agatha, I like hide and seek. And I’m a really good seeker. So we can have a new game – okay? Our game – just you and me?”

“… and Loo-cree-dee-ah.”

“Yes. And her too. We need to stop talking. Um … you need to shush – like Loo-cree-dee-ah says. And wait. I’ll find you. Real soon. So … so you don’t need to cry. Okay? … You can stop crying now.”

“Yes … I’ll try. Okay. But, Max, we’s very good hiders. Even Molly can’t find us. ‘Xept Loo-dree-dee-ah says she’ll be here soon enough – with her mouth all pouty, ‘pparently.”

“You could give me some clues? About your hiding place.”

“It’s got hats. And my old yellow wellies – they were Isobel’s first. Then she gived them to me. I don’t like Isobel, she took four of my pink jelly sweets. And she blew out my candles. Mummy said she shouldn’t blow out other people’s candles. That’s not a very fair thing to do … There’s lot’s of coats here too. I’m wearing my grandad’s. He looks like a bear when he puts it on. It’s a little bit too very enormous for me. There’s a big brown box – I think that’s where they put all the babies. I think I came out of that box. I don’t have anymore clues. Are you seeking now, Max?”

“Yes.”

“Are you nearly here yet? I can’t hear you.”

“Very nearly. I think you’ll hear me very soon.”

“That’s good. But you is not the winner. Molly did finded me first. She’s shouting at Loo-cree-dee-ah now. About a dog with lots of snot like runny ice-cream all over his face. Will you shout at Loo-cree-dee-ah?”

“I don’t think so. Geez, Agatha! I know who you are! There’s police everywhere! Do you have a big green door?”

“Max! You did finded us! I’s wearing Grandad’s boots but I can do stomping to the door. I’s coming!”

Chapter 32: Holidays

Have you ever been on a ‘last minute’ holiday? They’re always difficult. Difficult to get right, because they weren’t planned. Difficult to enjoy, because after the first day you wish you hadn’t been so rash and had waited to book a different and better holiday. And difficult to sustain, because after all the exhausting forcing-yourself-to-be-jolly, it’s hard to enjoy being somewhere you don’t want to be, doing things you don’t want to do and doing them with people you wish you’d left at home.

Lucretia had taken herself off on a last minute holiday.

‘Taken herself off ‘ is perhaps an understatement. It was more of a rushed flounce – the red cheeked, tail-feather fluttering, swooshing prance of an ostrich caught with it’s beak in the jam – accompanied by considerable panic and a large dollop of sulkiness. She was finding the holiday extremely difficult.

Waifs find each other. As I have said before. To another waif, they’re easier to spot than a black panther on a mountain covered in snow; or a redcurrant in a bowl of rice pudding; or the last chocolate in a box of chocolates. Waifs get inside each other’s heads unless the one that doesn’t want to be found concentrates so hard that she conjures up a blizzard to conceal the panther; drowns the redcurrant in milky rice, and persuades a mouse to eat the last chocolate. Lucretia was having to concentrate harder than the hardness of a stone at the bottom of a river bed; with, all the time, the water threatening to wash away her resolve.

She was determined that Paternoster wouldn’t find her. Not before a few days had passed. Not before the pug incident … and the abducting a little girl incident … and the pigeon-taming incident had receded into the swamp of Paternoster’s brain.

Lucretia was scared of Paternoster, so it helped her to imagine his actual, non-existent brain as a boggy, gassy, overgrown, murky swamp. Then, she remembered that things sometimes bubble to the surface of swamps and she shivered and imagined Paternoster’s angry face and for a moment stopped concentrating. And that let Paternoster find her.

Poor, guilty Lucretia.

As for Molly – dear Molly. Hide and seek Seeker and loyal friend.

Silas found her.

Silas really, really hated me. I know this because he opened up his mind and let me watch what he did to Molly. I didn’t want to watch. Especially, when I saw what was coming; before she did. Silas didn’t give me a choice.

If someone tells you on no account to look inside a small, leather box sitting on top of a pile of books, in a dimly lit room, and then departs, it is inevitable that most of us will resist the urge to disobey for varying lengths of time before giving in and taking a peak. Admit it – you’d look. I know I would. It’s the same if we’re told not to watch something; even when the person telling us not to watch is ourselves. We watch because we feel helpless and because we are afraid of missing out. I watched Silas taunting Molly because I couldn’t not watch and because I needed to know her fate. I had put her in harm’s way. I had to see what that harm would do to her.

Silas was waiting for her when she entered the tunnels at Holborn station.

Molly always was a trusting soul. And she didn’t know not to trust Silas. Yes, I’d told her to watch out for him. And I’d told her that he would be angry with me. And that he might take that anger out on her to punish me. But I don’t think she believed me, or only partially did. I was always telling her to be careful and to watch out for less friendly waifs. But usually, things turned out alright for her. She’d never come across a waif quite as unfriendly as Silas before, so she was like a butterfly caught in a storm.

The storm he chose to hit her with was a West bound tube-train, with nine carriages full of fidgety youths, on their way to a concert. He started screaming at her as soon as their eyes met and continued as he chased her across the platform and onto the train.

Molly was trapped.

Silas wouldn’t stop screaming.

Molly panicked and started to ‘run.’ She fled towards the whispering void between the heads of two girls dressed in identical, red and black, shiny jackets. As she approached, the smaller of the two shot her hand up to her ear to reposition the ear-plug of her headphones. Molly collided with her little finger and smelled cinnamon and orange as she squelched through her. Bright lights exploded behind Molly’s eyes and a man’s voice swore loudly in the girl’s memory. Tears felt cold against the girl’s cheeks and money … something about lost money … And Molly was out! Disorientated; weakened, a little, but free. She searched for somewhere to go, as Silas’s screaming wrenched the air from her ears. Legs! – There’s more room down there, she thought..

She weaved between knees as the train slowed and stopped at the next station.

No-one got off. More people squeezed on. Molly bounced off a bag.

As the train started to move again, something waved in the air, too close above her head. Silas’s hand. Surely he wouldn’t touch her. No, not that! It reached down towards her. She froze as the index finger unfurled slowly and pointed along the floor. “Go!” shrieked Silas.

Molly went, slaloming between legs. Pitching against the edges of seats, the floor and people’s bags. She was moving faster. Beginning to slide. The train slowed down lacerating her rhythm and she tumbled into an elderly man. The lights in him were less bright and the squelch revealed pages and pages of numbers … and a cold room … and a crying baby … and an old dog waiting at home. Molly drifted out of the old man and hung limply in the air above the lap of a boy who was wearing the same red and black shiny jacket as the orange and cinnamon girl.

Silas stopped shrieking and laughed. An unpleasantly taunting laugh stuffed with barbs that pricked her ears. She had squelched twice. She had no energy left. She wasn’t going to run.

She held Silas’s stare.

“Barny Boy’s not up to it then?” Silas sneered, spitting out my name. “So not up to it, he’s sent a snuffard. Eh? A measly snuffard!”

Molly said nothing. Silas made sure I saw the pain in her eyes.

“Barny Boy must be scared of something … Me?! – to send a snuffard down ‘ere. Either that or he don’t want you either, Mol. That makes ‘im a murderin’ coward – don’t it – like the coward who made you a snuffard?” He laughed. “Who was that? … Oh – I see-ee … your Dad!” Silas paused to scrutinise Molly’s face, expecting tears, seeing none. “So you wasn’t a Daddy’s girl then? I wonder what you did to make ‘im hit you … Show me – I SAID SHOW ME!! … Aargh! … She’s stronger than she looks Barny Boy.”

Molly said nothing. Her blank face stared back at Silas.

“Is the little snuffard deaf? Or just don’t know what to say? I’ll tell you what you can say. He leant in so his face was close to her’s and she could feel the icy hoar of his breath. “Beg me to let you go,“ he whispered. “C’mon – beg me! – I can’t hear you. I – CAN’T – HEAR – YOU!”

Molly wasn’t begging. She was dream-scaping for me. I saw her through Silas’s eyes and I could do nothing. My mouth formed the word ‘no’ but I couldn’t make her hear.

Silas, furious, lunged at her. I saw her reach out. And catch his hand. And pull him in to her.

The dream-scape ended abruptly – an unfinished letter from a dear friend etched with a fine needle into my memory.

Both waifs – Molly and Silas – were Disappeared.

Chapter 33: Disappearing and dreaming

Is being Disappeared final?

Could it be the next step on the forgotten soul’s path to dying? If it is, I hope Molly waits for me. If I’d gone first, I’d wait for her. Definitely. If I could.

Her dream-scape was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced. Full of the sort of light that a spring sun-rise brings and the jubilant cacophony of a howl of high-swinging gibbons, like the ones in their new home at London Zoo. It danced through my head, twisting scents of summer into every corner of my soul and filling me with a frisson of excited anticipation of good things to come like honey drizzled on bacon and candles flickering on birthday cakes and a snowy white owl flying in front of an icy moon. I saw things I have only ever dreamed of and I wondered how Molly knew.

I grew up throwing sacks onto ships; maybe Molly knew this, or perhaps she’d guessed from the dock-workers’ songs I sometimes sing. How did she know, though, that I had dreamed of climbing the ship’s rigging and feeling the wind blowing in my hair, as searing-white sails billowed beneath my feet? How could she know that I have long wanted to view the city, at sunset, from the top of St Paul’s? … Something that Paternoster has forbidden. And did she trespass into my head to find my secret longing to see and hear an opera – not a snatched listen through a crack in a window pane, but the full assault on the ears from inside the … hmm … which concert venue, when there are so many in London to choose from? She chose a prom at the Royal Albert Hall; and two old friends called Zurga and Nadir singing about being faithful to each other even after life threatened to push them apart. I have always been faithful to Molly. I think her dream-scape told me she knew that.

She has always been faithful to me. The last part of her dream-scape ended before I could understand it; it was night with the stars of the constellation Orion high above the Shard, as though the city was raising a sword to challenge the warriors of the heavens …

… Why did she choose Orion?

What would Min say?

As you don’t yet know who Min is – or any of the others, for that matter – I’ll desist from wondering with words, here on the page, what Molly was trying to say in this part of her dream-scape. Maybe, I’ll get back to it later. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, from the start. But something always gets in the way and I find I’ve stopped before I started. I will tell you; one day. After I’ve finished Agatha’s story. First, though, I have to finish Patrick’s.

Despite everything he has lived through, Patrick shares Molly’s faith in people, in loyalty and in lasting friendship.

He lost a lot of friends during the war. The same war that flattened all the book shops and publishing houses in Paternoster Row. When I say he lost friends, what I mean is he lost the sort of friends that little boys have – the old man who gave him a sweet in return for delivering a newspaper. The laundry woman who always had a song and a smile. The warden who had fashioned, for Patrick and some other boys, a game like hopscotch, played with pennies, on the steps of St Paul’s. The friend whose dad had gone to war and whose mother couldn’t bear to have him evacuated and when finally she agreed and he went to live with an elderly uncle in Suffolk, caught measles and died before she could get to him.

And his two older brothers.

Your big brothers aren’t meant to die. That is a thing that doesn’t seem right. They died within five weeks of each other, in the summer of 1940, when Patrick was six. He wasn’t told their story. He was a small boy and his parents’ only surviving son. He wasn’t told but he knew his brothers weren’t coming home. He watched his parents and their silence and their tears. He remembered the day he first saw his father cry; Christmas 1940 – the stove didn’t normally take that long to light; his father was frozen, crouched in front of it, the match long burnt out between his fingers. Tears poured down his cheeks. Silently. When he saw Patrick, he wiped his face and whispered “It’s ‘ard to bear Paddy-lad. It wouldn’t do to tell your mother you saw me cryin’. “

No-one had called him ‘Paddy-lad’ since. Days later, on the 29th of December, the blitz flattened the streets near them and blew out most of the windows in their house, filling it with smoke and dust and the smell of lost hopes. Patrick saw his father cry again. He’d been a book-binder, crafting the onlays and the gilded names for the spines of leather book jackets; coating blocked pages of words in something beautiful. But the Blitz destroyed the finishing rooms, the warehouse, the printers and thousands of books. Shortly after the bombing and the terrible fires that followed, Patrick was evacuated to his older sister’s, in a village in Dorset and he never saw his father again. His mother lived on in the house where Patrick now lives, until she was too old and moved to a care-home on the south side of the river, where she stared at the roses in a small garden, until one day she fell asleep and never woke again.

So what of Patrick now?

Well … you will recall his dinner with the judge and before that his arrest and distress. In the now that I’m describing, he has Mungo’s muzzle in his lap and he’s talking with Paternoster.

Picture the judge, full of dinner, snoring walrus-like in a leather chair in the corner of a room lined with books and book shelves, in the centre of which is a clearing where several easels stand, guarding a small plantation of teetering piles of canvases and sketch pads and thickets of paint brushes sprouting above long-dried water jars and pots and a few empty vases. Where the moonlight casts a shadow across the muted colours of a patterned rug, and Patrick sits at a vast oak desk, with his hands wrapped round a coffee mug and his dog leaning against his legs, determined never to let him go again. On the desk, are littered the letters and ledgers and literature of a life lived alone. And fittingly perched amid the almost discarded papers is Paternoster, with his feet on an inkwell and his chin resting on the smooth, curved top of a dimly-glowing, comfortingly warm, metal desk lamp.

The judge had shared an idea with Patrick. And freed by the knowledge that Agatha had been found, Paternoster and Patrick were letting their imaginations fly. Patrick’s house was large and filled with empty rooms. It had always been too large. The simple bookbinder who had lived there with his family, had married well. Patrick’s mother, in the eyes of her banker father, had married beneath her; her two sisters had married a professional soldier and the heir to a tea-importing business who one day would become a minor politician. Her father couldn’t forgive her. He punished his youngest daughter by first, buying her a house in a grand but bitter-tasting and resentful gesture because he knew a bookbinder would never afford the heating and the maintenance and that it would impoverish his son in law and make him a slave to his wife’s inheritance and second, by never speaking to her again. Patrick had inherited that house. His mother had survived her sisters and she had inherited all the banking fortune. The house had survived. It fronted a narrow pavement in an ancient cobbled street and where once there had been similar homes, Patrick’s house was now neighboured by offices and a small shop selling old books and maps.The rooms he inhabited were too much for just an old man and his old dog. If the judge’s idea could be made to work, every room of the house would ring with busy, arty activity and Patrick’s loneliness would be banished forever.

Chapter 34: An icy touch

Being Disappeared is not forever.

Silas is back.

He’s not the same but he’s back. Several waifs from the tunnels have whispered, behind cupped hands and after a hollow-eyed glance over their shoulders, that he’s down there. Filling the place with his own special, signature brew of love and laughter and brightness, no doubt. So far, no-one has been allowed to see him. All they’ve heard is his voice, which is rasping and gravelly and full of phlegm, like he’s been hung upside down above a bonfire. Which can’t be that different to how he sounded before.

Could it just be echoes of the old Silas? Could it be that he isn’t really back, that the tunnels are so long that echoes reverberate for weeks and return to haunt the place where they began?

I don’t want him to be back but my soul bleeds for Molly.

If Silas is back, why isn’t she.

Or is she? All morning, I have had the uncomfortable sensation of being watched. When I turn, wherever I look, there’s nothing there. No body, no dog, no cat, no wary pigeon, no waif. Just shadows and a cold feeling at the back of my neck. Which – now that I think about it – convinces me that she is back. The touch of a waif – which is more of a feeling than a touch –  is like frost on the tender petals of apple blossom. It is icy cold – the sort of cold that hurts. And, like frost that turns blossom brown, it sucks a little bit of the spirit of life out of you. Even to a waif, it feels cold. It unsettles. It means you can’t rest. You can’t get comfortable. You can’t concentrate on anything. I need to find her. My eyes bleed. They … I … need to see her.

Paternoster can feel her too. I’m sure of it. He’s said nothing to me. But I can tell.

Paternoster doesn’t do restless … normally. But he is more fidgety and irritable than I have ever seen him before. Yes, it could, partly, be the result of the conversation he just had with Lucretia. Which if conversation implies conversing was not a conversation at all. As it was one way. A grim stone-walling session on his part; hysterical tears and angry shouting on hers. It could also be that he knows they are back – Silas and Molly. I suspect he knew they would be – there’s something about the resolute expression on his face, as though he’s trying hard to pretend he isn’t sucking a sour sweet. If he did know, I wonder why he didn’t say. He’s usually a bit too up-front with his secrets-that-aren’t-secrets-but-that-he-wants-you-to-think-were-secrets-before-he-generously-chose-you-to-share-them-with. Is it such a bad secret? Are the tunnel waifs right that Silas is back but not back? Is that what Paternoster knows? That being Disappeared changed them? How dreadful can that be?

Chapter 35: Pretty dreadful

I now know why Molly’s dreamscape showed Orion, almost skewered by the Shard, high in a black night sky.

Unfortunately, knowing means that I can no longer avoid telling you about Min. And Tak and Lam. And Rigel and Saiph. The last two – they’re dogs. That was easy.

Tak and Lam are the friends who speak all diddly – as in intro-diddly-ductions.

As for Min, he’s the nearest thing to a big brother that they or any of us have. He’s always there. Always protective. Always teasing-but-at-the-same-time-kind. Always ready to play. Always gently correcting our faults and encouraging us to be better. A bit like he’s showing us how we could be, and if we like what he shows us, he’ll help us to get there. It’s good to have Min around and on your side. I’d hate to upset him or do something to make us into enemies. Somehow, in being all of these things, he manages to be calm and funny. He’s the still waters and the gentle breeze on a sunny day after a week of storms, while also being the ship’s mate, who’ll help you sail through whatever hail and thunder and fierce gales life flings at you.

Min is also a Leyak, a type of shape-shifter, but not the were-wolf kind … though if that’s how you imagined him, that’s what he’d be. Although, he’d be a gentle were-wolf, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. That’s how it works with him – you hear his voice or feel him near you, perhaps a shadow disturbing the air, perhaps a muffled footfall, and your brain starts to construct a jigsaw picture of what he might be. Once all the pieces are in place, that is forever after, how he will look to you.

I knew before I met Min that he was a God of sorts … an ancient one … and also one of the stars of Orion. I knew he was as clever as a room full of Nobel prize winning university professors and had a reputation for fiercely defending his friends. I had heard that he was small in stature but strong enough to stand up to the might of Scorpio. Ah! Scorpio! … Look into the sky and observe the nightly chase of Orion by Scorpio; always chasing – never catching – Scorpio rises as Orion sets. I don’t know why, but before I saw Min, my head imagined a silver-haired, dwarf-like figure with broad shoulders and bulging, stocky limbs, in full body armour, carrying a short, silver spear and shield, with a quiver of arrows in a long leather pouch on his back and a short willow bow across his shoulder. He berated me for giving him weapons, when we first met – “I cannae git at me ‘ands!” When we meet now, I’ve become accustomed to acting as his weapons bearer – a portering duty that is, of course, entirely my own fault.

Anyway, why am I telling you this … finally, telling you this …?

Because Molly is back.

Sort of.

I’m not sure she ever truly went away. Yes, the particles that were her; the woven looping mesh of tiny quantum granules that together made Molly, rearranged themselves after she and Silas Disappeared. After the big bang of their disappearing, they slowly re-aggregated, re-aligned, following the imprinted memory of sub-atomic bonds, forming a reconstructed … almost Molly.  If you are outside on a sunny day and someone stands between you and the sun, all you see of them is the halo of light around the dark shadow of their body. That halo is too bright to look at and you are forced to squint your eyes. Well … that is how Molly is now – a flaring, fluid, flickering silver outline. Inside … in the bit you can’t see … she is just the same. The innocently trusting Molly, naive and lovely as she was before. But there’s a slight catch in her voice, something strained like an over-tight violin string being played with a frayed bow, something that hints at a pain she is trying to hide.

She’s back.

I think that’s all that matters. Though I worry that thinking that comforts me, without properly considering her. She sacrificed everything. For me. She said goodbye with her dream-scape. Which she made for me. She didn’t expect to come back. To me. I struggle to find the words to describe how that makes me feel – I guess the best word is love: what she did, for me, it made … no, it makes me feel loved.

She thinks she came back for a reason. Her memory is patchy; her intellect an archipelago of  abruptly disconnected ideas. Did she and Silas reassemble and return to warn us? Perhaps. Paternoster thinks something like this has happened before. He won’t elaborate but his mouth looks like that of a fish who’s just been told there’s a pin-hole-sized leak in his fish tank and that there is no fish-sized plumber, mollusc or tool-wielding crab skilled enough to fix it … even if any of those elusive creatures shared the tank with him. And that – as the tank owner is more interested in girls than fish and keeps the tank in his bedroom, at his parents’ house and has a ‘Do not enter – toxic waste within’ sign on the door and his mother, who might have entered, moved out three months ago – no one will notice the slow drip-drip-drip of water onto the heap of dirty socks on the floor. Time for the fish will drain away – slowly, if the hole doesn’t enlarge; with a fraction more panic, if it does. Paternoster doesn’t normally do worried but his fishy mouth gives him away.

Silas had to return too. Apparently, because he has a role to play. Though I suspect Molly couldn’t have returned without him. If I can stay out of his way and keep Molly away from him, I’m okay with him being back; I guess he’ll be easy to spot in the dark tunnels …

First, however, I need to finish this story – the tale of Agatha and of Patrick.

Then I can tell you Molly’s story.

Chapter 36: Endings and beginnings

How are you at art?

Not the enthusiastic swishing of paint brushes and Pollock-like splatters and drips onto paper, or the washes of colour and scribbles of pencil that we all experiment with at school. No, the appreciation of Art. Gazing upon a picture and feeling its worthiness. Across the river from Paternoster Square is a gallery. In a gloomy room in that gallery are huge canvases boldly painted in swathes of deep reds and blacks. I go there and weigh the air that touches those paintings. It is heavy. Almost overpowering. I go there when I am burdened with something I want to forget. In another room, there is a painting of music. Yes … music. The artist – a chap called Gerhard – painted the sounds as he heard them in his head, while he touched his brush to the canvas. I go to it for enlightenment, for joy and exuberant energy like the zing of lemon juice in my mouth and drops of icy rain on my face and long grass between my toes. It makes me feel alive. Art can do that. It’s just a case of finding a painting, or a drawing, or a statue, or art in any other medium, that does it for you.

The judge appreciates Patrick’s art. He appreciates it greatly. So much that he hatched a plan. I’ve told you this before – it’s the plan that Paternoster and Patrick were discussing when I last mentioned them.

The plan is now way beyond hatching. It’s happening. It’s so happening that you could almost say it’s happened.

Patrick and Mungo have opened their home to the street people who cared for Mungo when Patrick was away. Those people were homeless but being homeless didn’t mean they didn’t care. Remember? They stayed with Mungo until Patrick returned. Yes … some of them did know Patrick; from afar. They’d observed the old man and his paintings. They’d felt their fingers twitch and inside their heads, they’d created their own pictures. Now, in Patrick’s home, they’re going to help him run a gallery of his art and, perhaps, in time, they’ll contribute some of their own. They need to settle. To adjust to the roof over their heads. To learn to live and work together. It will take time. Time that will slip past more smoothly with some of the food that the candle-stick maker, Alice has been making in Patrick’s sparse kitchen – she took him shopping on the day after she moved in, to buy bowls and knives and chopping boards and several pots of herbs that Patrick had not tasted before. The judge has helped with the legal side, not just to protect Patrick and his home, but to ensure his new lodgers receive the help they need. He’s also helped with Alice’s recipes; particularly with the tasting of her recipes.

Patrick will never live with the parched emptiness and long silences of loneliness again.

Paternoster has promised to visit and the judge, after his retirement, plans to move into the rooms on the upper floor and start to work his way through the leather-jacketed books, with the gold lettering on their spines, in Patrick’s library.

As for Agatha. She’s home. She was as mystified as … hmmm … as a little girl would be if she was discovered ankle deep in a heap of broken biscuits and chocolate wrappers, sitting at the bottom of a ladder constructed from her brick box, the kitchen stool and a chair, while claiming with huge unblinking doe-eyes above lips lightly dusted with icing sugar that ‘it was like this when I came in,’ when she visited Uma and was shown the ‘tewible wandalism’ that had happened to Uma’s Wendy house and Uma’s garden. “Awful!” Agatha agreed, after some quiet consideration.

Agatha’s mother is of course never going to let her out of her sight again. Great Aunt Agatha  asked her butler to buy some new biscuits. She also bought several of Patrick’s paintings, including the one of Little Agatha.

Great Aunt Agatha is an Arynx. She doesn’t know this yet.

Chapter 37: Ending with another story

So the Tale of Agatha is over. For now.

It is interesting, I often think, that in the telling of one story the seeds of others are found and scattered; some take root and grow and blossom, while others shrivel and fade. Take the story of Patrick for example. And of the judge. And of Alice. An oak; a yew and a rosemary bush, perhaps; mighty, healing and aromatic, respectively.

Molly, I picture as an orchid. A precious bloom. One that has re-flowered. One that still takes my breath away but … but … but … please don’t tell her this … who now lacks something. Her colours are muted and her white is less bright and the surfaces of her orchid leaves are pock-marked like the surface of an orange. That’s when you can see her – when the silver halo isn’t too bright. Molly isn’t a flower. It helps though – while I wait and hope for her to recover – to assign everyone a plant.

Silas is a thistle – the garden weed kind; etiolated by the dark of the tunnels and without the jaunty clowning of a tufty, flowering, purple hat.

Scorpio would be a jostling throng of bickering stems tangled into a thicket of bindweed – a new species, perhaps, with tendrils that silently reach out to caress your neck with silky strokes, as they wind round. Before they start to pull – tighter and tighter – slowly throttling life out of their victims who claw with frantic, bluing fingers at the suddenly barbed, wiry noose.

… I am of course procrastinating. I am putting off both telling you what Molly told me and admitting to myself that she isn’t recovering. Her light is fading ever so slightly which means that the Molly inside the halo can be seen more clearly. The clarity of that more clearly seeing is shocking. It hurts to see her. Like getting ash in your eyes. She doesn’t look good. Waifs were once boys and girls but waifs don’t look dead. Molly … well … she does. Her eyes look like they’ve seen something so terrible that they are stuck, red and terrified and in such awful pain that the only way they can get relief is to stare, unblinking, up from deep below the glassy surface of murky waters, in two deep, dark wells. She doesn’t cry. She shivers, sometimes uncontrollably. She speaks with a whisper, so I have to bend in close, which does strange things to the heart-that-I-don’t-have.

She told her story to Paternoster first. Then, he told it to me.

Silas brought her back. Even though she had tricked him. Even though he had lost. He sacrificed all the sudden unexpected relief that it meant to be Disappeared in order to return. After how he’d been – the Silas I knew and … yes … the Silas I feared – I am surprised that he did this for us. Perhaps, even bad waifs have a grain of the humanity that once made them reach out a hand to help another human being, even if they then regretted that instinct to be kind. Do we all have an instinct to be kind? I didn’t think we did, but now … perhaps, Silas just showed me that we do.

At the moment of Disappearing – as their atoms collided and exploded off each other – the train and the tunnel and London fell away and the sky appeared above them. They had the sensation of falling into it; of the end, of peace and of scattering themselves across and into the vast universe. From earth-dust to space-dust.

With protons and electrons zinging away from them, the last thing they saw was a red rip of fire tearing across the heavens from Scorpio’s head and a tall, dark man, carrying a long spear, clad in leather armour with a billowing, vermillion robe flying from his shoulders, running along it, with the sure-footed, agile grace and stealth of a hunter.

Antares was coming.

His past visits haven’t turned out well.

On Sunday 2nd September, 1666, London exploded in flame. On October 8th, 1871, it was Chicago’s turn. On 24th August, 79AD, vesuvius erupted. I know. I know – you’re thinking, ‘But we know, from History, what caused those terrible events to happen,’ but you don’t.

Something distracted Thomas Farriner as he closed up his Pudding Lane Bakery ovens for the night and someone spooked the O’Leary cow causing her to kick over a lantern in a Chicago barn. That something and that someone were both Antares. He claimed them and I know he spoke the truth. He boasts that Vesuvius was him too, but I find that harder to believe. I guess he could have super-heated the volcano. His star is a red supergiant and very, very hot indeed – so if he spat into a volcanic crater, it would probably explode.

Why he does these things, I don’t know. None of us do. He has a grudge against Orion – everyone knows that. And he is looking for someone he lost many years ago. Losing her made him furious. He still is. His fury creates fire. His desire is to turn the earth into a desert. That’s where he hopes to find the spirit of the being he lost. And take his vengeance out on her.

Silas saw Antares and dragged Molly into the path of the line of fire. The expanding, chaotic Brownian vibrations of their atoms abruptly stopped as the flames reached them. They condensed suddenly back to their waif forms and plunged back to earth. Both burning. Both stunned. Both in a place that we now know is worse than being Disappeared – they are Lost.

Antares is coming. Molly is Lost. And the heavy, lightning-charged rain has started to fall.

We don’t have long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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