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Black Swan Green

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Black Swan Green Cover

ISBN13: 9780812974010
ISBN10: 0812974018
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Review-A-Day

"Of all the books that I have read as an adult, the novels of David Mitchell have come closest to resurrecting my own childhood reading utopia....Black Swan Green is Mitchell's most adventuresome work yet. The difference is that while language previously played a supporting role to his formal experimentation, here he performs his experiments within the medium of language itself, and with brilliant results." Ruth Franklin, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)

"[A] funny, poignant story...simply a pleasure....[Mitchell] follows Pound's exhortation to 'make it new': You've read it before, and then again, you haven't read it quite like this. Jason Taylor is a classic, stammer and all." Claire Messud, LA Weekly (read the entire LA Weekly review)

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys' games on a frozen lake; of "nightcreeping" through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason's search to replace his dead grandfather's irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran Lps, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher's recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell's subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

Review:

"For his fourth novel, two-time Booker Prize finalist Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, etc.) turns to material most writers plumb in their first: the semiautobiographical, first-person coming-of-age story. And after three books with notably complex narrative structure, far-flung settings, and multiple viewpoints, he has chosen one narrator, 13-year-old Jason Taylor, to tell the story of one year (1982) in one town, Worcestershire's Black Swan Green. Jason starts with the January day he accidentally smashes his late grandfather's irreplaceable Omega Seamaster DeVille watch and ends with Christmas, which, because of intervening events, becomes the last he spends in this sleepy Midlands hamlet. The gorgeously revealed cast includes Jason's brilliant older sister, sarcastic mother, blustering dad and a spectrum of bullies and mates. Jason's nemesis is an intermittent, fluctuating stammer: some days he must avoid words beginning with N; other days, S. Once he is exposed, the bullies taunt him mercilessly; there is no respite for the weak or disabled in Black Swan Green nor, as the realities of Thatcher's grim reign begin to take their toll, in England writ large. How Jason and his family navigate this year of change is the emotional core of this rich novel, but the virtuoso chapter is 'The Bridle Path,' wherein Jason, alone for one delicious day, searches for a tunnel fabled to have been dug by the Romans in order to rout the Vikings. What he finds along the way captures the sheer pleasure of being a boy and brings to mind adventures shared by Huck and Tom." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

Review:

"Great Britain's Catcher in the Rye — and another triumph for one of the present age's most interesting and accomplished novelists." Kirkus Reviews

Review:

"Mitchell — who for my gelt is the best pure storyteller writing in English today — not only makes [the coming-of-age story] fresh and astounding and new, he does it by going out of his way to touch all the familiar bases..." San Diego Union-Tribune

Review:

"[A] beautiful, stripped-down coming-of-age story....[Mitchell] reproduces Jason's inner life with such astonishing verisimilitude that readers will find themselves haunted by him long after turning the last page." Booklist (Starred Review)

Review:

"This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly

Review:

"Here the virtuoso ventriloquism of multiple voices and settings focuses only on Jason and his surroundings but to heightened comic and dramatic effect. Recommended." Library Journal

Review:

"[B]rilliant....In Jason, Mitchell creates an evocative yet authentically adolescent voice, an achievement even more impressive than the ventriloquism of his earlier books." Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times Book Review

Review:

"There's so much to recommend this book....[T]he characters are wonderful — sympathetic, funny, perfectly drawn....Thus far, this is my favorite novel of 2006, and I won't be surprised if it turns out to be the best book I read all year." Philadelphia Inquirer

Review:

"[A] genuinely pristine and personal work. Comparisons could be made to Roddy Doyle or Mark Haddon....But Mitchell has very much a voice of his own, and the child's poetry he brings to this novel is a pleasure to behold." San Francisco Chronicle

Review:

"[Mitchell] has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel." The Washington Post

Review:

"A testament of [Mitchell's] seemingly bottomless talent....[Mitchell] succeeds in infusing a simple coming-of-age story with his own brand of creative flair, his trademark gorgeous language and his pitch-perfect dialogue....[P]owerful and beautifully rendered." Rocky Mountain News

Synopsis:

From the author of Cloud Atlas, now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

From the Hardcover edition.

Synopsis:

JANUARY MAN

Do not set foot in my office. Thats Dads rule. But the phoned rung twenty-five

times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless its a matter of

life or death. Dont they? Dads got an answering machine like James Garners

in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But hes stopped leaving it

switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldnt hear it up

in her converted attic cause “Dont You Want Me?” by Human League was

thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldnt hear cause the washing

machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty

rings. Thats just not normal. Spose Dadd been mangled by a juggernaut on

the M5 and the police only had this office number cause all his other I.D.d

got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in

the terminal ward.

So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeards chamber after

being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dads office

smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so

it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. Theres a serious clock on the

wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school.

Theres a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional

sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not

Greenland the country.) Dads IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands

of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phones red like a nuclear hotline and

its got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones.

So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our

number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.

But the person on the other end didnt answer.

"Hello?” I said. “Hello?”

They breathed in like theyd cut themselves on paper.

“Can you hear me? I cant hear you.”

Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.

“If you can hear me”—I remembered a Childrens Film Foundation film

where this happened—“tap the phone, once.”

There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.

“You might have the wrong number,” I said, wondering.

A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.

When people listen they make a listening noise.

Id heard it, so theyd heard me.

“May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief.” Miss

Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. Cause Id sort of had a reason to

have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dads razor-sharp

blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the

Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of

sticking snow, worse luck. Dads swivelly chairs a lot like the Millennium

Falcons laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming

over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and

Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages

and blackened wings. Id shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as

they pressed their ejector seats. Our marinesll mop them up. Id refuse all

medals. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Id tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

when Mum invited them in, “I was just doing my job.”

Dads got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils

sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencilsre sharpest, theyre Dads

faves. I prefer 2Bs.

The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked Id left no

other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it

was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.

Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluffs getting thicker, mind. “Youll

never guess what!”

"What?”

“You know the lake in the woods?”

“What about it?”

“Its only”—Moron checked that we werent being overheard—“gone and

froze solid! Half the kids in the villagere there, right now. Ace doss or what?”

“Jason!” Mum appeared from the kitchen. “Youre letting the cold in!

Either invite Dean inside—hello Dean—or shut the door.”

“Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum.”

Um . . . where?”

“Just for some healthy fresh air.”

That was a strategic mistake. “What are you up to?”

I wanted to say “Nothing” but Hangman decided not to let me. “Why

would I be up to anything?” I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel

coat.

“Whats your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?”

I still couldnt say “Nothing.” (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as

a hard-knock. Adults cant be expected to understand.) “My duffels a bit

warmer, thats all. Its parky out.”

“Lunch is one oclock sharp.” Mum went back to changing the Hoover

bag. “Dads coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your headll freeze.”

Woolly hatsre gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.

“Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor,” said Moron.

“Good-bye, Dean,” said Mum.

Mums never liked Moron.

Morons my height and hes okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears

ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage

that pongs of gravy too. His real names Dean Moran (rhymes with “warren”)

but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him “Moron” in our first

week and its stuck. I call him “Dean” if were on our own but names arent

just names. Kids whore really popular get called by their first names, so Nick

Yews always just “Nick.” Kids whore a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have

sort of respectful nicknames like “Yardy.” Next down are kids like me who call

each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like

Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, whos Knickerless Bra. Its all ranks, being a

boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just “Swinyard,” hed kick my

face in. Or if I called Moron “Dean” in front of everyone, itd damage my

own standing. So youve got to watch out.

Girls dont do this so much, cept for Dawn Madden, whos a boy gone

wrong in some experiment. Girls dont scrap so much as boys either. (That said,

just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard

started yelling “Bitch!” and “Slag!” in the bus queues after school. Punching

tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish Id been born a girl,

sometimes. Theyre generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that

out loud Id get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to

Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if

they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish

Magazine, was me, theyd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with

blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.

So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the

Scalectrix hed got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and

nearly wiped out his entire family. “Yeah, sure,” I said. But Moron swore it on

his nans grave. So I told him he should write to Thats Life on BBC and get

Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron

thought that might be difficult cause his dadd bought it off a Brummie at

Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didnt dare ask what a “Brummie”

was in case its the same as “bummer” or “bumboy,” which means homo.

“Yeah,” I said, “see what you mean.” Moron asked me what Id got for Christmas.

Id actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but

booksre gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which Id got from Uncle

Brian and Aunt Alice. Its a board game you win by getting your little car to

the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the

crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished Id rubbed

ointment into my lips cause they get chapped when its this cold.

Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. “Last one

to the lakes a spaz!” yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off

he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust

Moran. “I think I mightve got a concussion,” he said.

“Concussions if you hit your head. Unless your brains up your arse.”

What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.

The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in

Foxs Glacier Mints. Neal Brose had proper Olympic ice skates he hired out

for 5p a go, though Pete Redmarley was allowed to use them for free so other

kidsd see him speed-skating around and want a go too. Just staying up on the

ice is hard enough. I fell over loads before I got the knack of sliding in my

trainers. Ross Wilcox turned up with his cousin Gary Drake and Dawn Mad-

den. All threere pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcoxre taller than me too

now. (Theyd cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars theyd got

playing Scabby Queen. Mumd murder me.) Squelch sat on the humpy island

in the middle of the lake where the ducks normally live, shouting, “Arse

over tit! Arse over tit!” at whoever fell over. Squelchs funny in the head cause

he was born too early, so nobody ever thumps him one. Not hard, anyway.

Grant Burch rode his servant Philip Phelpss Raleigh Chopper actually on

the ice. He kept his balance for a few seconds, but when he pulled a wheelie

the bike went flying. After it landed it looked like Uri Gellerd tortured it to

death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what hed tell his dad.

Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen laked be perfect

for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, “Okay, Im on for that,” so it was decided.

I hate British Bulldogs. When Miss Throckmorton banned it at our primary

school after Lee Biggs lost three teeth playing it, I was dead relieved. But this

morning any kid who denied loving British Bulldogsdve looked a total

ponce. Specially kids from up Kingfisher Meadows like me.

About twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden, stood in a

bunch to be picked like slaves in a slave market. Grant Burch and Nick Yew

were joint captains of one team. Pete Redmarley and Gilbert Swinyard were

the captains of the other. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake both got picked before

me by Pete Redmarley, but I got picked by Grant Burch on the sixth pass,

which wasnt embarrassingly late. Moron and Squelch were the last two left.

Grant Burch and Pete Redmarley joked, “No, you can have em both, we

want to win!” and Moron and Squelch had to laugh like they thought it was

funny too. Maybe Squelch really did. (Moron didnt. When everyone looked

away, he had the same face as that time after we all told him we were playing

Hide-and-Seek and sent him off to hide. It took an hour for him to work out

nobody was looking for him.) Nick Yew won the toss so us lot were the Runners

first and Pete Redmarleys team were the Bulldogs. Unimportant kids

coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and

to defend. Girls, apart from Dawn Madden, and the littluns were cleared off

the ice. Redmarleys Bulldogs formed a pack in the middle and us Runners

slid to our starting goal. My heart was drumming now. Bulldogs and Runners

crouched like sprinters. The captains led the chant.

“British Bulldogs! One two three!”

Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose)

just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. Thisd

tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners. (Bulldogs

have to pin down both shoulders of Runners onto the ice for long

enough to shout “British Bulldogs one two three.”) With luck, my strategyd

clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goalposts. My plan

worked pretty well at first. The Tookey brothers and Gary Drake all crashed

into Nick Yew. A flying leg kicked my shin but I got past them without coming

a cropper. But then Ross Wilcox came homing in on me. I tried to wriggle

past but Wilcox got a firm grip on my wrist and tried to pull me down. But

instead of trying to struggle free I got a firmer grip on his wrist and flung him

off me, straight into Ant Little and Darren Croome. Ace in the face or what?

Games and sports arent about taking part or even about winning. Games and

sportsre really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby

tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. Hes too worried about the teeth

hes got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant

Burch shouted, “Nice work Jacey-boy!” Nick Yewd fought free of the Tookeys

and Gary Drake and got home too. About a third of the Runners got captured

and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs.

It forces you to be a traitor.

So anyway, we all chanted, “British Bulldogs one two THREE!” and

charged like last time but this time I had no chance. Ross Wilcox and Gary

Drake and Dawn Madden targeted me from the start. No matter how I tried

to dodge through the fray it was hopeless. I hadnt got halfway across the lake

before they got me. Ross Wilcox went for my legs, Gary Drake toppled me,

and Dawn Madden sat on my chest and pinned my shoulders down with her

knees. I just lay there and let them convert me into a Bulldog. In my heart Id

always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might

notve been on purpose. Dawn Maddens got cruel eyes like a Chinese empress

and sometimes one glimpse at school makes me think about her all day.

Ross Wilcox jumped up and punched the air like hed scored at Old Trafford.

The spazzo. “Yeah, yeah, Wilcox,” I said, “three against one, well done.”

Wilcox flashed me a V-sign and slid off for another battle. Grant Burch and

Nick Yew came windmilling at a thick pocket of Bulldogs and half of them

went flying.

Then Gilbert Swinyard yelled at the top of his lungs, “PIIIIIILEONNNNNN!

That was the signal for every Runner and every Bulldog on

the lake to throw themselves onto a wriggling, groaning, growing pyramid of

kids. The game itself was sort of forgotten. I held back, pretending to limp a

bit from my dead leg. Then we heard the sound of a chain saw in the woods,

flying down the track, straight toward us.

The chain saw wasnt a chain saw. It was Tom Yew on his purple Suzuki

150cc scrambler. Pluto Noak was clinging to the back, without a helmet.

British Bulldogs was aborted cause Tom Yews a minor legend in Black

Swan Green. Tom Yew serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS

Coventry. Tom Yews got every Led Zep album ever made and can play the

guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” Tom Yews actually shaken

hands with Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper. Pluto Noaks a less shiny

legend. He left school without even taking his CSEs last year. Now he

works in the Pork Scratchings factory in Upton-on-Severn. (Theres rumors

Pluto Noaks smoked cannabis but obviously it wasnt the type that cauliflowerizes

your brain and makes you jump off roofs onto railings.) Tom Yew

parked his Suzuki by the bench on the narrow end of the lake and sat on it,

sidesaddle. Pluto Noak thumped his back to say thanks and went to speak to

Collette Bozard, who, according to Morons sister Kelly, hes had sexual intercourse

with. The older kids sat on the bench facing him, like Jesuss disciples,

and passed round fags. (Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake smoke now.

Worse still, Ross Wilcox asked Tom Yew something about Suzuki silencers

and Tom Yew answered him like Ross Wilcox was eighteen too.) Grant

Burch told his servant Phelps to run and get him a peanut Yorkie and a can

of Top Deck from Rhydds Shop, yelling after him, “Run, I told yer!” to impress

Tom Yew. Us middle-rank kids sat round the bench on the frosty

ground. The older kids started talking about the best things on TV over

Christmas and New Years. Tom Yew started saying hed seen The Great Escape

and everyone agreed everything elsed been crap compared to The

Great Escape, specially the bit where Steve McQueen gets caught by Nazis

on the barbed wire. But then Tom Yew said he thought itd gone on a bit

long and everyone agreed that though the film was classic itd dragged on

for ages. (I didnt see it cause Mum and Dad watched the Two Ronnies

Christmas special. But I paid close attention so I can pretend tove watched

it when school starts next Monday.)

The talkd shifted, for some reason, to the worst way to die.

“Gettin bit by a green mamba,” Gilbert Swinyard reckoned. “Deadliest

snake in the world. Yer organs burst so yer piss mixes with yer blood. Agony.

“Agony, sure,” sniffed Grant Burch, “but youre dead pretty quick. Havin

yer skin unpeeled off yer like a sock, thats worse. Apache Indians do that to

yer. The best ones can make it last the whole night.”

Pete Redmarley said hed heard of this Vietcong execution. “They strips

yer, ties yer up, then rams Philadelphia cheese up yer jax. Then they locks yer

in a coffin with a pipe goin in. Then they send starving rats down the pipe.

The rats eat through the cheese, then carry on chewin, into you.

Everyone looked at Tom Yew for the answer. “I get this dream.” He took a

drag on his cigarette that lasted an age. “Im with the last bunch of survivors,

after an atomic war. Were walking up a motorway. No cars, just weeds. Every

time I look behind me, therere fewer of us. One by one, you see, the radiations

getting them.” He glanced at his brother Nick, then over the frozen

lake. “Its not that Ill die that bothers me. Its that Ill be the last one.”

Nobody said a lot for a bit.

Ross Wilcox swiveled our way. He took a drag on his cigarette that lasted

an age, the poser. “If it wasnt for Winston Churchill you lotd all be speakin

German now.”

Sure, like Ross Wilcox wouldve evaded capture and headed a resistance

cell. I was dying to tell that prat that actually, if the Japanese hadnt bombed

Pearl Harbor, Americad neverve come into the war, Britaindve been

starved into surrender, and Winston Churchilldve been executed as a war

criminal. But I knew I couldnt. There were swarms of stammer-words in

there, and Hangmans bloody merciless this January. So I said I was busting

for a waz, stood up, and went down the path to the village a bit. Gary Drake

shouted, “Hey, Taylor! Shake your dong more than twice, youre playing with

it!,” which got fat laughs from Neal Brose and Ross Wilcox. I flashed them a

V-sign over my shoulder. That stuff about shaking your dongs a craze at the

moment. Theres no one I can trust to ask what it means.

Treesre always a relief, after people. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox mightve

been slagging me off, but the fainter the voices became, the less I wanted to go

back. I loathed myself for not putting Ross Wilcox in his place about speaking

German, but itdve been death tove started stammering back there. The

cladding of frost on thorny branches was thawing and fat drops drip-dripdripping.

It soothed me, a bit. In little pits where the sun couldnt reach there

was still some gravelly snow left, but not enough to make a snowball. (Nero

used to kill his guests by making them eat glass food, just for a laugh.) A robin,

I saw, a woodpecker, a magpie, a blackbird, and far off I think I heard a

nightingale, though Im not sure you get them in January. Then, where the

faint path from the House in the Woods meets the main path to the lake, I

heard a boy, gasping for breath, pounding this way. Between a pair of wishbone

pines I squeezed myself out of sight. Phelps dashed by, clutching his

masters peanut Yorkie and a can of Tizer. (Rhydds must be out of Top Deck.)

Behind the pines a possible path led up the slant. I know all the paths in this

part of the woods, I thought. But not this one. Pete Redmarley and Grant

Burchd start up British Bulldogs again when Tom Yew left. That wasnt much

of a reason to go back. Just to see where the path might go, I followed it.

Theres only one house in the woods so thats what we call it, the House in the

Woods. An old woman was sposed to live there, but I didnt know her name

and Id never seen her. The houses got four windows and a chimney, same as

a little kids drawing of a house. A brick wall as high as me surrounds it and

wild bushes grow higher. Our war games in the woods steered clear of the

building. Not cause therere any ghost stories about it or anything. Its just

that part of the woods isnt good.

But this morning the house looked so hunkered down and locked up, I

doubted anyone was still living there. Plus, my bladder was about to split, and

that makes you less cautious. So I peed up against the frosted wall. Id just finished

signing my autograph in steamy yellow when a rusty gate opened up

with a tiny shriek and there stood a sour aunt from black-and-white times. Just

standing there, staring at me.

My pee ran dry.

“God! Sorry!” I zipped up my fly, expecting an utter bollocking. Mumd

flay alive any kid she found pissing against our fence, then feed his body to

the compost bin. Including me. “I didnt know anyone was living . . . here.”

The sour aunt carried on looking at me.

Pee dribbles blotted my underpants.

“My brother and I were born in this house,” she said, finally. Her throat

was saggy like a lizards. “We have no intention of moving away.”

“Oh . . .” I still wasnt sure if she was about to open fire on me. “Good.”

“How noisy you youngsters are!”

“Sorry.”

“It was very careless of you to wake my brother.”

My mouthd glued up. “It wasnt me making all the noise. Honestly.”

“There are days”—the sour aunt never blinked—“when my brother loves

youngsters. But on days like these, my oh my, you give him the furies.”

“Like I said, Im sorry.”

“Youll be sorrier,” she said, looking disgusted, “if my brother gets a hold

of you.”

Quiet things were too loud and loud things couldnt be heard.

“Is he . . . uh, around? Now? Your brother, I mean?”

“His rooms just as he left it.”

“Is he ill?”

She acted like she hadnt heard me.

“Ive got to go home now.”

“Youll be sorrier”—she did that spitty chomp old people do to not dribble—“

when the ice cracks.”

“The ice? On the lake? Its as solid as anything.”

“You always say so. Ralph Bredon said so.”

“Whos he?”

“Ralph Bredon. The butchers boy.”

It didnt feel at all right. “Ive got to go home now.”

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was

Findus hamncheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips, and sprouts.

Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a

song and dance about it, or thered be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.

Mum says she wont let the dining table be used as a venue for “adolescent

discontent.” Before Christmas I asked what not liking the taste of sprouts

has to do with “adolescent discontent.” Mum warned me to stop being a

Clever Little Schoolboy. I shouldve shut up but I pointed out that Dad never

makes her eat melon (which she hates) and Mum never makes Dad eat garlic

(which he hates). She went ape and sent me to my room. When Dad got

back I got a lecture about arrogance.

No pocket money that week, either.

So anyway, this lunchtime I cut my sprouts up into tiny pieces and glolloped

tomato ketchup over them. “Dad?”

Jason?”

“If you drown, what happens to your body?”

Julia rolled her eyes like Jesus on his cross.

“Bit of a morbid topic for the dinner table.” Dad chewed his forkful of

crispy pancake. “Why do you ask?”

It was best not to mention the frozen-up pond. “Well, in this book Arctic

Adventure these two brothers Hal and Roger Huntre being chased by a baddie

called Kaggs who falls into the—”

Dad held up his hand to say Enough! “Well, in my opinion, Mr. Kaggs

gets eaten by fish. Picked clean.”

“Do they have piranhas in the Arctic?”

“Fishll eat anything once its soft enough. Mind you, if he fell into the

Thames, his bodyd wash up before long. The Thames always gives up its

dead, the Thames does.”

My misdirection was complete. “How about if he fell through ice, into a

lake, say? Whatd happen to him then? Would he sort of stay . . . deep

frozen?”

Thing,” Julia mewled, “is being grotesque while were eating, Mum.”

Mum rolled up her napkin. “Lorenzo Hussingtrees has a new range of

tiles in, Michael.” (My abortion of a sister flashed me a victorious grin.)

“Michael?”

“Yes, Helena?”

“I thought we could drop by Lorenzo Hussingtrees showroom on our way

to Worcester. New tiles. Theyre exquisite.

“No doubt Lorenzo Hussingtree charges exquisite prices, to match?”

“Were having workmen in anyway, so why not make a proper job of it?

The kitchens getting embarrassing.”

“Helena, why—”

Julia sees arguments coming even before Mum and Dad sometimes.

“Can I get down now?”

“Darling.” Mum looked really hurt. “Its butterscotch Angel Delight.”

“Yummy, but could I have mine tonight? Got to get back to Robert Peel

and the Enlightened Whigs. Anyway, Thing has ruined my appetite.”

“Pigging on Cadburys Roses with Kate Alfrick,” I counterattacked, “is

whats ruined your appetite.”

“So where did the Terrys Chocolate Orange go, Thing?”

“Julia,” Mum sighed, “I do wish you wouldnt call Jason that. Youve only

got one brother.”

Julia said, “One too many” and got up.

Dad remembered something. “Have either of you been into my office?”

“Not me, Dad.” Julia hovered in the doorway, scenting blood. “Mustve

been my honest, charming, obedient, younger sibling.”

How did he know?

“Its a simple enough question.” Dad had hard evidence. The only adult I

know who bluffs kids is Mr. Nixon, our headmaster.

The pencil! When Dean Moran rang the doorbell I mustve left the pencil

in the sharpener. Damn Moron. “Your phone was ringing for yonks, like,

four or five minutes, honestly, so—”

Dad didnt care. “Whats the rule about not going into my office?”

“But I thought it might be an emergency so I picked it up and there

was”—Hangman blocked “someone”—“a person on the other end but—”

“I believe”—now Dads palm said HALT!—“I just asked you a question.”

“Yes, but—”

What question did I just ask you?”

“ ‘Whats the rule about not going into my office? ”

“So I did.” Dads a pair of scissors at times. Snip snip snip snip. “Now, why

dont you answer this question?”

Then Julia did a strange move. “Thats funny.”

“I dont see anyone laughing.”

“No, Dad, on Boxing Day when you and Mum took Thing to Worcester,

the phone in your office went. Honestly, it went on for aeons. I couldnt concentrate

on my revision. The more I told myself it wasnt a desperate ambulanceman

or something, the likelier it seemed it was. In the end it was driving

me crazy. I had no choice. I said ‘Hello but the person on the other end

didnt say anything. So I hung up, in case it was a pervert.”

Dadd gone quiet but the danger wasnt past.

“That was just like me,” I ventured. “But I didnt hang up straightaway

cause I thought maybe they couldnt hear me. Was there a baby in the background,

Julia?”

“Okay, you two, enough of the private-eye biz. If some joker is making

nuisance calls then I dont want either of you answering, no matter what. If it

happens again, just unplug the socket. Understand?”

Mum was just sitting there. It didnt feel at all right.

Dads “DID YOU HEAR ME?” was like a brick through a window. Julia

and me jumped. “Yes Dad.”

Mum, me, and Dad ate our butterscotch Angel Delight without a word. I

didnt dare even look at my parents. I couldnt ask to get down early too cause

Juliad already used that card. Why I was in the doghouse was clear enough,

but God knows why Mum and Dad were giving each other the silent treatment.

After the last spoonful of Angel Delight Dad said, “Lovely, Helena,

thank you. Jason and Ill do the washing up, wont we, Jason?”

Mum just made this nothing-sound and went upstairs.

Dad washed up, humming a nothing-song. I put the dirty dishes in the

hatch, then went into the kitchen to dry. I shouldve just shut up, but I

thought I could make the day turn safely normal if I just said the right thing.

“Do you get”—Hangman loves giving me grief over this word—“nightingales

in January, Dad? I mightve heard one this morning. In the woods.”

Dad was Brillo-padding a pan. “How should I know?”

I pushed on. Usually Dad likes talking about nature and stuff. “But that

bird at granddads hospice. You said it was a nightingale.”

“Huh. Fancy you remembering that.” Dad stared over the back lawn at

the icicles on the summerhouse. Then this noise came out of Dad like hed

entered the Worlds Miserablest Man of 1982 Competition. “Just concentrate

on those glasses, Jason, before you drop one.” He switched on Radio 2 for the

weather forecast, then began cutting up the 1981 Highway Code with scissors.

Dad bought the updated 1982 Highway Code the day it came out, and

he says old ones could cause accidents if theyre not destroyed. Tonight most

of the British Isles will see temperatures plunging well below zero. Motorists

in Scotland and the North should be careful of black ice on the roads, and

the Midlands should anticipate widespread patches of freezing fog.

Up in my room I played the Game of Life, but being two players at once is no

fun. Julias friend Kate Alfrick called for Julia to study together. But they were

just gossiping about whos going out with who in the sixth form, and playing

Police singles. My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded

city. Mum and Dad at lunch. Hangman colonizing the alphabet. At this rate

Im going to have to learn sign language. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox.

Theyve never exactly been my best mates but today theyd ganged up against

me. Neal Brose was in on it too. Last, the sour aunt in the woods worried me.

How come?

Wished there was a crack to slip through and leave all this stuff behind.

Next week Im thirteen but thirteen looks way worse than twelve. Julia moans

nonstop about being eighteen but eighteens epic, from where Im standing.

No official bedtime, twice my pocket money, and for Julias eighteenth she

went to Tanyas Night Club in Worcester with her thousand and one friends.

Tanyass got the only xenon disco laser light in Europe! How ace is that?

Dad drove off up Kingfisher Meadows, alone.

Mum must still be in her room. Shes there more and more recently.

To cheer myself up I put on my granddads Omega. Dad called me into

his office on Boxing Day and said he had something very important to give

me, from my grandfather. Dadd been keeping it till I was mature enough to

look after it myself. It was a watch. An Omega Seamaster De Ville. Granddad

bought it off a real live Arab in a port called Aden in 1949. Adens in Arabia

and once it was British. Hed worn it every day of his life, even the moment

he died. That fact makes the Omega more special, not scary. The Omegas

face is silver and wide as a 50p but as thin as a tiddlywink. “A sign of an excellent

watch,” Dad said, grave as grave, “is its thinness. Not like these plastic

tubs teenagers strap to their wrist these days to strut about in.”

Where I hid my Omega is a work of genius and second in security only to

my Oxo tin under the loose floorboard. Using a Stanley knife I hollowed out

a crappy-looking book called Woodcraft for Boys. Woodcraft for Boyss on my

shelf between real books. Julia often snoops in my room, but shes never discovered

this hiding place. Id know cause I keep a 1⁄2p coin balanced on it at

the back. Plus, if Juliad found it shedve copied my ace idea for sure. Ive

checked her bookshelf for false spines and there arent any.

Outside I heard an unfamiliar car. A sky-blue VW Jetta was crawling

along the curb, as if its driver was searching for a house number. At the end

of our cul-de-sac the driver, a woman, did a three-point turn, stalled once,

and drove off up Kingfisher Meadows. I shouldve memorized the number

plate in case its on Police 999.

Granddad was the last grandparent to die, and the only one I have any

memories of. Not many. Chalking roads for my Corgi cars down his garden

path. Watching Thunderbirds at his bungalow in Grange-over-Sands and

drinking pop called Dandelion and Burdock.

I wound the stopped Omega up and set the time to a fraction after three.

Unborn Twin murmured, Go to the lake.

The stump of an elm guards a bottleneck in the path through the woods. Sitting

on the stump was Squelch. Squelchs real names Mervyn Hill but one

time when we were changing for P.E., he pulled down his trousers and we

saw he had a nappy on. About nine, hedve been. Grant Burch started the

Squelch nickname and its been years since anyones called him Mervyn. Its

easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname.

So anyway, Squelch was stroking something furry and moon gray in the

crook of his elbow. “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

“All right, Squelch. What you got there, then?”

Squelchs got stained teeth. “Aint showin!”

“Go on. You can show us.

Squelch mumbled, “Kit Kat.”

“A Kit Kat? A chocolate bar?”

Squelch showed me the head of a sleeping kitten. “Kitty cat! Finders

keepers, losers weepers.”

“Wow. A cat. Whered you find her?”

“By the lake. Crack o dawn, bfore anyone else got to the lake. I hided her

while we did British Bulldogs. Hided her in a box.”

“Why didnt you show it to anyone?”

“Burch and Swinyard and Redmarley and them bastardsdve tooked her

aways why! Finders keepers, losers weepers. I hided her. Now I come back.”

You never know with Squelch. “Shes quiet, isnt she?”

Squelch just petted her.

“Could I hold her, Merv?”

“If you dont breathe a word to no one”—Squelch eyed me dubiously—

“you can stroke her. But take them gloves off. Theyre nobbly.”

So I took off my goalie gloves and reached out to touch the kitten.

Squelch lobbed the kitten at me. “Its yours now!”

Taken by surprise, I caught the kitten.

“Yours!” Squelch ran off laughing back to the village. “Yours!”

The kitten was cold and stiff as a pack of meat from the fridge. Only now

did I realize it was dead. I dropped it. It thudded.

“Finders,” Squelch called, his voice dying off, “keepers!”

Using two sticks, I lifted the kitten into a clump of nervy snowdrops.

So still, so dignified. Died in the frost last night, I spose.

Dead things show you what youll be too one day.

Nobodyd be out on the frozen lake, Id suspected, and there wasnt a soul.

Superman II was on TV. Id seen it at Malvern Cinema about two years ago

on Neal Broses birthday. It wasnt bad but not worth sacrificing my own private

frozen lake for. Clark Kent gives up his powers just to have sexual intercourse

with Lois Lane in a glittery bed. Whod make such a stupid swap? If

you could fly? Deflect nuclear missiles into space? Turn back time by spinning

the planet in reverse? Sexual intercourse cant be that good.

I sat on the empty bench to eat a slab of Jamaican Ginger Cake, then went

out on the ice. Without other kids watching, I didnt fall once. Round and

around in swoopy anticlockwise loops I looped, a stone on the end of a string.

Overhanging trees tried to touch my head with their fingers. Rooks craw . . .

craw . . . crawed, like old people whove forgotten why theyve come upstairs.

A sort of trance.

The afternoond gone and the sky was turning to outer space when I noticed

another kid on the lake. This boy skated at my speed and followed my orbit,

but always stayed on the far side of the lake. So if I was at twelve oclock, he

was at six. When I got to eleven, he was at five, and so on, always across from

me. My first thought was he was a kid from the village, just mucking about. I

even thought he might be Nick Yew cause he was sort of stocky. But the

strange thing was, if I looked at this kid directly for more than a moment, dark

spaces sort of swallowed him up. The first couple of times I thought hed gone

home. But after another half loop of the lake, hed be back. Just at the edge of

my vision. Once I skated across the lake to intercept him, but he vanished before

I got to the island in the middle. When I carried on orbiting the pond, he

was back.

Go home, urged the nervy Maggot in me. What if hes a ghost?

My Unborn Twin cant stand Maggot. What if he is a ghost?

“Nick?” I called out. My voice sounded indoors. “Nick Yew?”

The kid carried on skating.

I called out, “Ralph Bredon?”

His answer took a whole orbit to reach me.

Butchers boy.

If a doctord told me the kid across the lake was my imagination, and that

his voice was only words I thought, I wouldntve argued. If Juliad told me I

was convincing myself Ralph Bredon was there to make myself feel more special

than I am, I wouldntve argued. If a mysticd told me that one exact moment

in one exact place can act as an antenna that picks up faint traces of lost

people, I wouldntve argued.

“Whats it like?” I called out. “Isnt it cold?”

The answer took another orbit to reach me.

You get used to the cold.

Do the kids whod drowned in the lake down the years mind me trespassing

on their roof? Do they want new kids to fall through? For company? Do

they envy the living? Even me?

I called out, “Can you show me? Show me what its like?”

The moond swum into the lake of night.

We skated one orbit.

The shadow-kid was still there, crouching as he skated, just like I was.

We skated another orbit.

An owl or something fluttered low across the lake.

“Hey?” I called out. “Did you hear me? I want to know what its—”

The ice shrucked me off my feet. For a helterskeltery moment I was in

midair at an unlikely height. Bruce Lee doing a karate kick, that high. I knew

it wasnt going to be a soft landing but I hadnt guessed how painful a slam itd

be. The crack shattered from my ankle to my jaw to my knuckles, like an ice

cube plopped into warm squash. No, bigger than an ice cube. A mirror,

dropped from Skylab height. Where it hit the earth, where it smashed into

daggers and thorns and invisible splinters, thats my ankle.

I spun and slid to a shuddery stop by the edge of the lake.

For a bit, all I could do was lie there, basking in that supernatural pain.

Even Giant Haystacksdve whimpered. “Bloody bugger,” I gasped to plug my

tears. “Bloody bloody bloody bugger!” Through the flinty trees I could just

hear the sound of the main road but there was no way I could walk that far. I

tried to stand but just fell on my arse, wincing with fresh pain. I couldnt

move. Id die of pneumonia if I stayed where I was. I had no idea what to do.

“You,” sighed the sour aunt. “We suspected youd come knocking again

soon.”

“I hurt”—my voiced gone all bendy—“I hurt my ankle.”

“So I see.”

“Its killing me.”

“I daresay.”

“Can I just phone my dad to come and get me?”

“We dont care for telephones.”

“Could you go and get help? Please?”

“We dont ever leave our house. Not at night. Not here.”

“Please.” The underwatery pain shook as loud as electric guitars. “I cant

walk.”

“I know about bones and joints. Youd best come inside.”

Inside was colder than outside. Bolts behind me slid home and a lock

turned. “Down you go,” the sour aunt said, “down to the parlor. Ill be right

along, once Ive prepared your cure. But whatever you do, be quiet. Youll be

very sorry if you wake my brother.”

“All right . . .” I glanced away. “Which ways your parlor?”

But the darkd shuffled itself and the sour auntd gone.

Way down the hallway was a blade of muddy light, so that was the direction

I limped. God knows how I walked up the rooty, twisty path from the

frozen lake on that busted ankle. But I mustve done, tove got here. I passed

a ladder of stairs. Enough muffled moonlight fell down it for me to make out

an old photograph hanging on the wall. A submarine in an arctic-looking

port. The crew stood on deck, all saluting. I walked on. The blade of light

wasnt getting any nearer.

The parlor was a bit bigger than a big wardrobe and stuffed with museumy

stuff. An empty parrot cage, a mangle, a towering dresser, a scythe. Junk, too.

A bent bicycle wheel and one soccer boot, caked in silt. A pair of ancient

skates, hanging on a coat stand. There was nothing modern. No fire. Nothing

electrical apart from a bare brown bulb. Hairy plants sent bleached roots out

of tiny pots. God it was cold! The sofa sagged under me and sssssssssed. One

other doorway was screened by beads on strings. I tried to find a position

where my ankle hurt less but there wasnt one.

Time went by, I suppose.

The sour aunt held a china bowl in one hand and a cloudy glass in the

other. “Take off your sock.”

My ankle was balloony and limp. The sour aunt propped my calf on a

footstool and knelt by it. Her dress rustled. Apart from the blood in my ears

and my jagged breathing there was no other sound. Then she dipped her

hand into the bowl and began smearing a bready goo onto my ankle.

My ankle shuddered.

“This is a poultice.” She gripped my shin. “To draw out the swelling.”

The poultice sort of tickled but the pain was too vicious and I was fighting

the cold too hard. The sour aunt smeared the goo on till it was used up

and my ankled completely clagged. She handed me the cloudy glass. “Drink

this.”

“It smells like . . . marzipan.”

“Its for drinking. Not smelling.”

“But what is it?”

“Itll help take the pain away.”

Her face told me I had no real choice. I swigged back the liquid in one go

like you do milk of magnesia. It was syrupy-thick but didnt taste of much. I

asked, “Is your brother asleep upstairs?”

“Where else would he be, Ralph? Shush now.”

“My names not Ralph,” I told her, but she acted like she hadnt heard.

Clearing up the misunderstandingdve been a massive effort, and now Id

stopped moving. I just couldnt fight the cold anymore. Funny thing was, as

soon as I gave in, a lovely drowsiness tugged me downward. I pictured Mum,

Dad, and Julia sitting at home watching The Paul Daniels Magic Show but

their faces melted away, like reflections on the backs of spoons.

The cold poked me awake. I didnt know where or who or when I was. My

ears felt bitten and I could see my breath. A china bowl sat on a footstool and

my ankle was crusted in something hard and spongy. Then I remembered

everything, and sat up. The pain in my foot had gone but my head didnt feel

right, like a crowd flown in and couldnt get out. I wiped the poultice off my

foot with a snotty hanky. Unbelievably at first, my ankle swiveled fine, cured,

like magic. I pulled on my sock and trainer, stood up, and tested my weight.

There was a faint twinge, but only cause I was looking for it. Through the

beaded doorway I called out, “Hello?”

No answer came. I passed through the crackly beads into a tiny kitchen

with a stone sink and a massive oven. Big enough for a kid to climb in. Its

doord been left open, but inside was dark as that cracked tomb under Saint

Gabriels. I wanted to thank the sour aunt for curing my ankle.

Make sure the back door opens, warned Unborn Twin.

It didnt. Neither did the frost-flowered sash window. Its catch and

hingesd been painted over long ago and itd take a chisel to persuade it open,

at least. I wondered what the time was and squinted at my granddads Omega

but it was too dark in the tiny kitchen to see. Suppose it was late evening? Id

get back and my tead be waiting under a Pyrex dish. Mum and Dad go ape if

Im not back in time for tea. Or spose itd gone midnight? Spose the policed

been alerted? Jesus. Or what if Id slept right through one short day and into

the night of the next? The Malvern Gazetteer and Midlands Todaydve already

shown my school photo and sent out appeals for witnesses. Jesus.

Squelch wouldve reported seeing me heading to the frozen lake. Frogmen

might be searching for me there, right now.

This was a bad dream.

No, worse than that. Back in the parlor, I looked at my grandfathers

Omega and saw that there was no time. My voice whimpered, “No.” The

glass face, the hour hand, and the minute handd gone and only a bent second

hand was left. When I fell on the ice, it mustve happened then. The casing

was split and half its innardsd spilt out.

Granddads Omegad never once gone wrong in four decades.

In less than a fortnight, Id killed it.

Wobbly with dread, I walked up the hallway and rasped up the twisted stairs,

“Hello?” Silent as night in an ice age. “I have to go!” Worry about the

Omegad swatted off worry about being in this house, but I still darednt shout

in case I woke the brother. “Ive got to go home now,” I called, a bit louder.

No reply. I decided to just leave by the front door. Id come back in the daytime

to thank her. The bolts slid open easily enough, but the old-style lock

was another matter. Without the key it wouldnt open. That was that. Id have

to go upstairs, wake the old biddy to get her key, and if she got annoyed that

was just tough titty. Something, something, had to be done about the catastrophe

of the smashed watch. God knows what, but I couldnt do it inside the

House in the Woods.

The stairs curved up steeper. Soon I had to use my hands to grip the stairs

above me, or Idve fallen back. How on earth the sour aunt went up and

down in that big rookish dress was anybodys guess. Finally, I hauled myself

onto a tiny landing with two doors. A slitty window let in a glimmer. One door

had to be the sour aunts room. The other had to be the brothers.

Lefts got a power that right hasnt, so I clasped the iron doorknob on the

left door. It sucked the warmth from my hand, my arm, my blood.

Scrit-scrat.

I froze.

Scrit-scrat.

A deathwatch beetle? Rat in the loft? Pipe freezing up?

Which room was the scrit-scrat coming from?

The iron doorknob made a coiling creak as I turned it.

Powdery moonlight lit the attic room through the snowflake-lace curtain. Id

guessed right. The sour aunt lay under a quilt with her dentures in a jar by

her bed, still as a marble duchess on a church tomb. I shuffled over the tipsy

floor, nervous at the thought of waking her. What if she forgot who I was and

thought Id come to murder her and screamed for help and had a stroke? Her

hair spilt over her folded face like pondweed. A cloud of breath escaped her

mouth every ten or twenty heartbeats. Only that proved she was made of flesh

and blood like me.

“Can you hear me?”

No, Id have to shake her awake.

My hand was halfway to her shoulder when that scrit-scrat noise started

up again, deep inside her.

Not a snore. A death rattle.

Go into the other bedroom. Wake her brother. She needs an ambulance.

No. Smash your way out. Run to Isaac Pye in the Black Swan for help. No.

Theyd ask why youd been in the House in the Woods. Whatd you say? You

dont even know this womans name. Its too late. Shes dying, right now. Im

certain. The scrit-scrats uncoiling. Louder, waspier, daggerier.

Her windpipe bulges as her soul squeezes out of her heart.

Her worn-out eyes flip awake like a dolls, black, glassy, shocked.

From her black crack mouth, a blizzard rushes out.

A silent roaring hangs here.

Not going anywhere.

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

David Mitchell is the author of Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Cloud Atlas, the last two finalists for the Booker Prize. Granta magazine named him one of Britain's best young novelists in 2003. He lives in County Cork with his wife and daughter.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

Samantha Tetangco, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Samantha Tetangco)
A surprise. Beautiful prose. Moving story. Unlike anything I have ever read and everything like books I love.
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Danielle M, May 27, 2011 (view all comments by Danielle M)
Great coming-of-age story set in England in the early eighties. Definitely David Mitchell's most "normal" book (no exotic locations, fractured narratives, or reflective time frames) but excellent nonetheless and further proof that Mitchell is a master at creating three-dimensional worlds both small and vast.
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(2 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)
JNielsO, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by JNielsO)
This one really resonated for me. Mitchell completely captured the dizzying experience of being thirteen - not an adult, not a child, but caught in the great, confusing abyss in-between. I loved this book so much that I actually started to ration my reading to only a couple of pages a day because I couldn't bear for it to end. Vivid and heartfelt. I'll be re-reading this one an a regular basis just to spend more time with the lead character. I'd love to meet up with him again some time. For anyone who feels that "Catcher In The Rye" is an over-rated coming of age novel, this book is for you!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780812974010
Author:
Mitchell, David
Publisher:
Random House Trade
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
England
Subject:
Boys
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;coming of age;england;novel;1980s;british;adolescence;bullying;childhood;divorce;family;falklands war;21st century;boys;contemporary fiction;bildungsroman;uk;english;literature;bullies;growing up;contemporary;alex award;poetry;britain;british lite
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20070231
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
8.22x5.56x.67 in. .61 lbs.

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Product details 304 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812974010 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "For his fourth novel, two-time Booker Prize finalist Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, etc.) turns to material most writers plumb in their first: the semiautobiographical, first-person coming-of-age story. And after three books with notably complex narrative structure, far-flung settings, and multiple viewpoints, he has chosen one narrator, 13-year-old Jason Taylor, to tell the story of one year (1982) in one town, Worcestershire's Black Swan Green. Jason starts with the January day he accidentally smashes his late grandfather's irreplaceable Omega Seamaster DeVille watch and ends with Christmas, which, because of intervening events, becomes the last he spends in this sleepy Midlands hamlet. The gorgeously revealed cast includes Jason's brilliant older sister, sarcastic mother, blustering dad and a spectrum of bullies and mates. Jason's nemesis is an intermittent, fluctuating stammer: some days he must avoid words beginning with N; other days, S. Once he is exposed, the bullies taunt him mercilessly; there is no respite for the weak or disabled in Black Swan Green nor, as the realities of Thatcher's grim reign begin to take their toll, in England writ large. How Jason and his family navigate this year of change is the emotional core of this rich novel, but the virtuoso chapter is 'The Bridle Path,' wherein Jason, alone for one delicious day, searches for a tunnel fabled to have been dug by the Romans in order to rout the Vikings. What he finds along the way captures the sheer pleasure of being a boy and brings to mind adventures shared by Huck and Tom." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Of all the books that I have read as an adult, the novels of David Mitchell have come closest to resurrecting my own childhood reading utopia....Black Swan Green is Mitchell's most adventuresome work yet. The difference is that while language previously played a supporting role to his formal experimentation, here he performs his experiments within the medium of language itself, and with brilliant results." (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review A Day" by , "[A] funny, poignant story...simply a pleasure....[Mitchell] follows Pound's exhortation to 'make it new': You've read it before, and then again, you haven't read it quite like this. Jason Taylor is a classic, stammer and all." (read the entire LA Weekly review)
"Review" by , "Great Britain's Catcher in the Rye — and another triumph for one of the present age's most interesting and accomplished novelists."
"Review" by , "Mitchell — who for my gelt is the best pure storyteller writing in English today — not only makes [the coming-of-age story] fresh and astounding and new, he does it by going out of his way to touch all the familiar bases..."
"Review" by , "[A] beautiful, stripped-down coming-of-age story....[Mitchell] reproduces Jason's inner life with such astonishing verisimilitude that readers will find themselves haunted by him long after turning the last page."
"Review" by , "This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man. (Grade: A)"
"Review" by , "Here the virtuoso ventriloquism of multiple voices and settings focuses only on Jason and his surroundings but to heightened comic and dramatic effect. Recommended."
"Review" by , "[B]rilliant....In Jason, Mitchell creates an evocative yet authentically adolescent voice, an achievement even more impressive than the ventriloquism of his earlier books."
"Review" by , "There's so much to recommend this book....[T]he characters are wonderful — sympathetic, funny, perfectly drawn....Thus far, this is my favorite novel of 2006, and I won't be surprised if it turns out to be the best book I read all year."
"Review" by , "[A] genuinely pristine and personal work. Comparisons could be made to Roddy Doyle or Mark Haddon....But Mitchell has very much a voice of his own, and the child's poetry he brings to this novel is a pleasure to behold."
"Review" by , "[Mitchell] has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel."
"Review" by , "A testament of [Mitchell's] seemingly bottomless talent....[Mitchell] succeeds in infusing a simple coming-of-age story with his own brand of creative flair, his trademark gorgeous language and his pitch-perfect dialogue....[P]owerful and beautifully rendered."
"Synopsis" by , From the author of Cloud Atlas, now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

From the Hardcover edition.

"Synopsis" by , JANUARY MAN

Do not set foot in my office. Thats Dads rule. But the phoned rung twenty-five

times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless its a matter of

life or death. Dont they? Dads got an answering machine like James Garners

in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But hes stopped leaving it

switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldnt hear it up

in her converted attic cause “Dont You Want Me?” by Human League was

thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldnt hear cause the washing

machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty

rings. Thats just not normal. Spose Dadd been mangled by a juggernaut on

the M5 and the police only had this office number cause all his other I.D.d

got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in

the terminal ward.

So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeards chamber after

being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dads office

smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so

it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. Theres a serious clock on the

wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school.

Theres a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional

sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not

Greenland the country.) Dads IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands

of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phones red like a nuclear hotline and

its got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones.

So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our

number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.

But the person on the other end didnt answer.

"Hello?” I said. “Hello?”

They breathed in like theyd cut themselves on paper.

“Can you hear me? I cant hear you.”

Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.

“If you can hear me”—I remembered a Childrens Film Foundation film

where this happened—“tap the phone, once.”

There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.

“You might have the wrong number,” I said, wondering.

A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.

When people listen they make a listening noise.

Id heard it, so theyd heard me.

“May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief.” Miss

Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. Cause Id sort of had a reason to

have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dads razor-sharp

blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the

Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of

sticking snow, worse luck. Dads swivelly chairs a lot like the Millennium

Falcons laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming

over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and

Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages

and blackened wings. Id shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as

they pressed their ejector seats. Our marinesll mop them up. Id refuse all

medals. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Id tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

when Mum invited them in, “I was just doing my job.”

Dads got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils

sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencilsre sharpest, theyre Dads

faves. I prefer 2Bs.

The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked Id left no

other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it

was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.

Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluffs getting thicker, mind. “Youll

never guess what!”

"What?”

“You know the lake in the woods?”

“What about it?”

“Its only”—Moron checked that we werent being overheard—“gone and

froze solid! Half the kids in the villagere there, right now. Ace doss or what?”

“Jason!” Mum appeared from the kitchen. “Youre letting the cold in!

Either invite Dean inside—hello Dean—or shut the door.”

“Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum.”

Um . . . where?”

“Just for some healthy fresh air.”

That was a strategic mistake. “What are you up to?”

I wanted to say “Nothing” but Hangman decided not to let me. “Why

would I be up to anything?” I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel

coat.

“Whats your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?”

I still couldnt say “Nothing.” (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as

a hard-knock. Adults cant be expected to understand.) “My duffels a bit

warmer, thats all. Its parky out.”

“Lunch is one oclock sharp.” Mum went back to changing the Hoover

bag. “Dads coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your headll freeze.”

Woolly hatsre gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.

“Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor,” said Moron.

“Good-bye, Dean,” said Mum.

Mums never liked Moron.

Morons my height and hes okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears

ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage

that pongs of gravy too. His real names Dean Moran (rhymes with “warren”)

but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him “Moron” in our first

week and its stuck. I call him “Dean” if were on our own but names arent

just names. Kids whore really popular get called by their first names, so Nick

Yews always just “Nick.” Kids whore a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have

sort of respectful nicknames like “Yardy.” Next down are kids like me who call

each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like

Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, whos Knickerless Bra. Its all ranks, being a

boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just “Swinyard,” hed kick my

face in. Or if I called Moron “Dean” in front of everyone, itd damage my

own standing. So youve got to watch out.

Girls dont do this so much, cept for Dawn Madden, whos a boy gone

wrong in some experiment. Girls dont scrap so much as boys either. (That said,

just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard

started yelling “Bitch!” and “Slag!” in the bus queues after school. Punching

tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish Id been born a girl,

sometimes. Theyre generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that

out loud Id get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to

Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if

they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish

Magazine, was me, theyd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with

blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.

So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the

Scalectrix hed got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and

nearly wiped out his entire family. “Yeah, sure,” I said. But Moron swore it on

his nans grave. So I told him he should write to Thats Life on BBC and get

Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron

thought that might be difficult cause his dadd bought it off a Brummie at

Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didnt dare ask what a “Brummie”

was in case its the same as “bummer” or “bumboy,” which means homo.

“Yeah,” I said, “see what you mean.” Moron asked me what Id got for Christmas.

Id actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but

booksre gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which Id got from Uncle

Brian and Aunt Alice. Its a board game you win by getting your little car to

the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the

crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished Id rubbed

ointment into my lips cause they get chapped when its this cold.

Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. “Last one

to the lakes a spaz!” yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off

he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust

Moran. “I think I mightve got a concussion,” he said.

“Concussions if you hit your head. Unless your brains up your arse.”

What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.

The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in

Foxs Glacier Mints. Neal Brose had proper Olympic ice skates he hired out

for 5p a go, though Pete Redmarley was allowed to use them for free so other

kidsd see him speed-skating around and want a go too. Just staying up on the

ice is hard enough. I fell over loads before I got the knack of sliding in my

trainers. Ross Wilcox turned up with his cousin Gary Drake and Dawn Mad-

den. All threere pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcoxre taller than me too

now. (Theyd cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars theyd got

playing Scabby Queen. Mumd murder me.) Squelch sat on the humpy island

in the middle of the lake where the ducks normally live, shouting, “Arse

over tit! Arse over tit!” at whoever fell over. Squelchs funny in the head cause

he was born too early, so nobody ever thumps him one. Not hard, anyway.

Grant Burch rode his servant Philip Phelpss Raleigh Chopper actually on

the ice. He kept his balance for a few seconds, but when he pulled a wheelie

the bike went flying. After it landed it looked like Uri Gellerd tortured it to

death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what hed tell his dad.

Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen laked be perfect

for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, “Okay, Im on for that,” so it was decided.

I hate British Bulldogs. When Miss Throckmorton banned it at our primary

school after Lee Biggs lost three teeth playing it, I was dead relieved. But this

morning any kid who denied loving British Bulldogsdve looked a total

ponce. Specially kids from up Kingfisher Meadows like me.

About twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden, stood in a

bunch to be picked like slaves in a slave market. Grant Burch and Nick Yew

were joint captains of one team. Pete Redmarley and Gilbert Swinyard were

the captains of the other. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake both got picked before

me by Pete Redmarley, but I got picked by Grant Burch on the sixth pass,

which wasnt embarrassingly late. Moron and Squelch were the last two left.

Grant Burch and Pete Redmarley joked, “No, you can have em both, we

want to win!” and Moron and Squelch had to laugh like they thought it was

funny too. Maybe Squelch really did. (Moron didnt. When everyone looked

away, he had the same face as that time after we all told him we were playing

Hide-and-Seek and sent him off to hide. It took an hour for him to work out

nobody was looking for him.) Nick Yew won the toss so us lot were the Runners

first and Pete Redmarleys team were the Bulldogs. Unimportant kids

coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and

to defend. Girls, apart from Dawn Madden, and the littluns were cleared off

the ice. Redmarleys Bulldogs formed a pack in the middle and us Runners

slid to our starting goal. My heart was drumming now. Bulldogs and Runners

crouched like sprinters. The captains led the chant.

“British Bulldogs! One two three!”

Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose)

just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. Thisd

tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners. (Bulldogs

have to pin down both shoulders of Runners onto the ice for long

enough to shout “British Bulldogs one two three.”) With luck, my strategyd

clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goalposts. My plan

worked pretty well at first. The Tookey brothers and Gary Drake all crashed

into Nick Yew. A flying leg kicked my shin but I got past them without coming

a cropper. But then Ross Wilcox came homing in on me. I tried to wriggle

past but Wilcox got a firm grip on my wrist and tried to pull me down. But

instead of trying to struggle free I got a firmer grip on his wrist and flung him

off me, straight into Ant Little and Darren Croome. Ace in the face or what?

Games and sports arent about taking part or even about winning. Games and

sportsre really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby

tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. Hes too worried about the teeth

hes got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant

Burch shouted, “Nice work Jacey-boy!” Nick Yewd fought free of the Tookeys

and Gary Drake and got home too. About a third of the Runners got captured

and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs.

It forces you to be a traitor.

So anyway, we all chanted, “British Bulldogs one two THREE!” and

charged like last time but this time I had no chance. Ross Wilcox and Gary

Drake and Dawn Madden targeted me from the start. No matter how I tried

to dodge through the fray it was hopeless. I hadnt got halfway across the lake

before they got me. Ross Wilcox went for my legs, Gary Drake toppled me,

and Dawn Madden sat on my chest and pinned my shoulders down with her

knees. I just lay there and let them convert me into a Bulldog. In my heart Id

always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might

notve been on purpose. Dawn Maddens got cruel eyes like a Chinese empress

and sometimes one glimpse at school makes me think about her all day.

Ross Wilcox jumped up and punched the air like hed scored at Old Trafford.

The spazzo. “Yeah, yeah, Wilcox,” I said, “three against one, well done.”

Wilcox flashed me a V-sign and slid off for another battle. Grant Burch and

Nick Yew came windmilling at a thick pocket of Bulldogs and half of them

went flying.

Then Gilbert Swinyard yelled at the top of his lungs, “PIIIIIILEONNNNNN!

That was the signal for every Runner and every Bulldog on

the lake to throw themselves onto a wriggling, groaning, growing pyramid of

kids. The game itself was sort of forgotten. I held back, pretending to limp a

bit from my dead leg. Then we heard the sound of a chain saw in the woods,

flying down the track, straight toward us.

The chain saw wasnt a chain saw. It was Tom Yew on his purple Suzuki

150cc scrambler. Pluto Noak was clinging to the back, without a helmet.

British Bulldogs was aborted cause Tom Yews a minor legend in Black

Swan Green. Tom Yew serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS

Coventry. Tom Yews got every Led Zep album ever made and can play the

guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” Tom Yews actually shaken

hands with Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper. Pluto Noaks a less shiny

legend. He left school without even taking his CSEs last year. Now he

works in the Pork Scratchings factory in Upton-on-Severn. (Theres rumors

Pluto Noaks smoked cannabis but obviously it wasnt the type that cauliflowerizes

your brain and makes you jump off roofs onto railings.) Tom Yew

parked his Suzuki by the bench on the narrow end of the lake and sat on it,

sidesaddle. Pluto Noak thumped his back to say thanks and went to speak to

Collette Bozard, who, according to Morons sister Kelly, hes had sexual intercourse

with. The older kids sat on the bench facing him, like Jesuss disciples,

and passed round fags. (Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake smoke now.

Worse still, Ross Wilcox asked Tom Yew something about Suzuki silencers

and Tom Yew answered him like Ross Wilcox was eighteen too.) Grant

Burch told his servant Phelps to run and get him a peanut Yorkie and a can

of Top Deck from Rhydds Shop, yelling after him, “Run, I told yer!” to impress

Tom Yew. Us middle-rank kids sat round the bench on the frosty

ground. The older kids started talking about the best things on TV over

Christmas and New Years. Tom Yew started saying hed seen The Great Escape

and everyone agreed everything elsed been crap compared to The

Great Escape, specially the bit where Steve McQueen gets caught by Nazis

on the barbed wire. But then Tom Yew said he thought itd gone on a bit

long and everyone agreed that though the film was classic itd dragged on

for ages. (I didnt see it cause Mum and Dad watched the Two Ronnies

Christmas special. But I paid close attention so I can pretend tove watched

it when school starts next Monday.)

The talkd shifted, for some reason, to the worst way to die.

“Gettin bit by a green mamba,” Gilbert Swinyard reckoned. “Deadliest

snake in the world. Yer organs burst so yer piss mixes with yer blood. Agony.

“Agony, sure,” sniffed Grant Burch, “but youre dead pretty quick. Havin

yer skin unpeeled off yer like a sock, thats worse. Apache Indians do that to

yer. The best ones can make it last the whole night.”

Pete Redmarley said hed heard of this Vietcong execution. “They strips

yer, ties yer up, then rams Philadelphia cheese up yer jax. Then they locks yer

in a coffin with a pipe goin in. Then they send starving rats down the pipe.

The rats eat through the cheese, then carry on chewin, into you.

Everyone looked at Tom Yew for the answer. “I get this dream.” He took a

drag on his cigarette that lasted an age. “Im with the last bunch of survivors,

after an atomic war. Were walking up a motorway. No cars, just weeds. Every

time I look behind me, therere fewer of us. One by one, you see, the radiations

getting them.” He glanced at his brother Nick, then over the frozen

lake. “Its not that Ill die that bothers me. Its that Ill be the last one.”

Nobody said a lot for a bit.

Ross Wilcox swiveled our way. He took a drag on his cigarette that lasted

an age, the poser. “If it wasnt for Winston Churchill you lotd all be speakin

German now.”

Sure, like Ross Wilcox wouldve evaded capture and headed a resistance

cell. I was dying to tell that prat that actually, if the Japanese hadnt bombed

Pearl Harbor, Americad neverve come into the war, Britaindve been

starved into surrender, and Winston Churchilldve been executed as a war

criminal. But I knew I couldnt. There were swarms of stammer-words in

there, and Hangmans bloody merciless this January. So I said I was busting

for a waz, stood up, and went down the path to the village a bit. Gary Drake

shouted, “Hey, Taylor! Shake your dong more than twice, youre playing with

it!,” which got fat laughs from Neal Brose and Ross Wilcox. I flashed them a

V-sign over my shoulder. That stuff about shaking your dongs a craze at the

moment. Theres no one I can trust to ask what it means.

Treesre always a relief, after people. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox mightve

been slagging me off, but the fainter the voices became, the less I wanted to go

back. I loathed myself for not putting Ross Wilcox in his place about speaking

German, but itdve been death tove started stammering back there. The

cladding of frost on thorny branches was thawing and fat drops drip-dripdripping.

It soothed me, a bit. In little pits where the sun couldnt reach there

was still some gravelly snow left, but not enough to make a snowball. (Nero

used to kill his guests by making them eat glass food, just for a laugh.) A robin,

I saw, a woodpecker, a magpie, a blackbird, and far off I think I heard a

nightingale, though Im not sure you get them in January. Then, where the

faint path from the House in the Woods meets the main path to the lake, I

heard a boy, gasping for breath, pounding this way. Between a pair of wishbone

pines I squeezed myself out of sight. Phelps dashed by, clutching his

masters peanut Yorkie and a can of Tizer. (Rhydds must be out of Top Deck.)

Behind the pines a possible path led up the slant. I know all the paths in this

part of the woods, I thought. But not this one. Pete Redmarley and Grant

Burchd start up British Bulldogs again when Tom Yew left. That wasnt much

of a reason to go back. Just to see where the path might go, I followed it.

Theres only one house in the woods so thats what we call it, the House in the

Woods. An old woman was sposed to live there, but I didnt know her name

and Id never seen her. The houses got four windows and a chimney, same as

a little kids drawing of a house. A brick wall as high as me surrounds it and

wild bushes grow higher. Our war games in the woods steered clear of the

building. Not cause therere any ghost stories about it or anything. Its just

that part of the woods isnt good.

But this morning the house looked so hunkered down and locked up, I

doubted anyone was still living there. Plus, my bladder was about to split, and

that makes you less cautious. So I peed up against the frosted wall. Id just finished

signing my autograph in steamy yellow when a rusty gate opened up

with a tiny shriek and there stood a sour aunt from black-and-white times. Just

standing there, staring at me.

My pee ran dry.

“God! Sorry!” I zipped up my fly, expecting an utter bollocking. Mumd

flay alive any kid she found pissing against our fence, then feed his body to

the compost bin. Including me. “I didnt know anyone was living . . . here.”

The sour aunt carried on looking at me.

Pee dribbles blotted my underpants.

“My brother and I were born in this house,” she said, finally. Her throat

was saggy like a lizards. “We have no intention of moving away.”

“Oh . . .” I still wasnt sure if she was about to open fire on me. “Good.”

“How noisy you youngsters are!”

“Sorry.”

“It was very careless of you to wake my brother.”

My mouthd glued up. “It wasnt me making all the noise. Honestly.”

“There are days”—the sour aunt never blinked—“when my brother loves

youngsters. But on days like these, my oh my, you give him the furies.”

“Like I said, Im sorry.”

“Youll be sorrier,” she said, looking disgusted, “if my brother gets a hold

of you.”

Quiet things were too loud and loud things couldnt be heard.

“Is he . . . uh, around? Now? Your brother, I mean?”

“His rooms just as he left it.”

“Is he ill?”

She acted like she hadnt heard me.

“Ive got to go home now.”

“Youll be sorrier”—she did that spitty chomp old people do to not dribble—“

when the ice cracks.”

“The ice? On the lake? Its as solid as anything.”

“You always say so. Ralph Bredon said so.”

“Whos he?”

“Ralph Bredon. The butchers boy.”

It didnt feel at all right. “Ive got to go home now.”

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was

Findus hamncheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips, and sprouts.

Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a

song and dance about it, or thered be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.

Mum says she wont let the dining table be used as a venue for “adolescent

discontent.” Before Christmas I asked what not liking the taste of sprouts

has to do with “adolescent discontent.” Mum warned me to stop being a

Clever Little Schoolboy. I shouldve shut up but I pointed out that Dad never

makes her eat melon (which she hates) and Mum never makes Dad eat garlic

(which he hates). She went ape and sent me to my room. When Dad got

back I got a lecture about arrogance.

No pocket money that week, either.

So anyway, this lunchtime I cut my sprouts up into tiny pieces and glolloped

tomato ketchup over them. “Dad?”

Jason?”

“If you drown, what happens to your body?”

Julia rolled her eyes like Jesus on his cross.

“Bit of a morbid topic for the dinner table.” Dad chewed his forkful of

crispy pancake. “Why do you ask?”

It was best not to mention the frozen-up pond. “Well, in this book Arctic

Adventure these two brothers Hal and Roger Huntre being chased by a baddie

called Kaggs who falls into the—”

Dad held up his hand to say Enough! “Well, in my opinion, Mr. Kaggs

gets eaten by fish. Picked clean.”

“Do they have piranhas in the Arctic?”

“Fishll eat anything once its soft enough. Mind you, if he fell into the

Thames, his bodyd wash up before long. The Thames always gives up its

dead, the Thames does.”

My misdirection was complete. “How about if he fell through ice, into a

lake, say? Whatd happen to him then? Would he sort of stay . . . deep

frozen?”

Thing,” Julia mewled, “is being grotesque while were eating, Mum.”

Mum rolled up her napkin. “Lorenzo Hussingtrees has a new range of

tiles in, Michael.” (My abortion of a sister flashed me a victorious grin.)

“Michael?”

“Yes, Helena?”

“I thought we could drop by Lorenzo Hussingtrees showroom on our way

to Worcester. New tiles. Theyre exquisite.

“No doubt Lorenzo Hussingtree charges exquisite prices, to match?”

“Were having workmen in anyway, so why not make a proper job of it?

The kitchens getting embarrassing.”

“Helena, why—”

Julia sees arguments coming even before Mum and Dad sometimes.

“Can I get down now?”

“Darling.” Mum looked really hurt. “Its butterscotch Angel Delight.”

“Yummy, but could I have mine tonight? Got to get back to Robert Peel

and the Enlightened Whigs. Anyway, Thing has ruined my appetite.”

“Pigging on Cadburys Roses with Kate Alfrick,” I counterattacked, “is

whats ruined your appetite.”

“So where did the Terrys Chocolate Orange go, Thing?”

“Julia,” Mum sighed, “I do wish you wouldnt call Jason that. Youve only

got one brother.”

Julia said, “One too many” and got up.

Dad remembered something. “Have either of you been into my office?”

“Not me, Dad.” Julia hovered in the doorway, scenting blood. “Mustve

been my honest, charming, obedient, younger sibling.”

How did he know?

“Its a simple enough question.” Dad had hard evidence. The only adult I

know who bluffs kids is Mr. Nixon, our headmaster.

The pencil! When Dean Moran rang the doorbell I mustve left the pencil

in the sharpener. Damn Moron. “Your phone was ringing for yonks, like,

four or five minutes, honestly, so—”

Dad didnt care. “Whats the rule about not going into my office?”

“But I thought it might be an emergency so I picked it up and there

was”—Hangman blocked “someone”—“a person on the other end but—”

“I believe”—now Dads palm said HALT!—“I just asked you a question.”

“Yes, but—”

What question did I just ask you?”

“ ‘Whats the rule about not going into my office? ”

“So I did.” Dads a pair of scissors at times. Snip snip snip snip. “Now, why

dont you answer this question?”

Then Julia did a strange move. “Thats funny.”

“I dont see anyone laughing.”

“No, Dad, on Boxing Day when you and Mum took Thing to Worcester,

the phone in your office went. Honestly, it went on for aeons. I couldnt concentrate

on my revision. The more I told myself it wasnt a desperate ambulanceman

or something, the likelier it seemed it was. In the end it was driving

me crazy. I had no choice. I said ‘Hello but the person on the other end

didnt say anything. So I hung up, in case it was a pervert.”

Dadd gone quiet but the danger wasnt past.

“That was just like me,” I ventured. “But I didnt hang up straightaway

cause I thought maybe they couldnt hear me. Was there a baby in the background,

Julia?”

“Okay, you two, enough of the private-eye biz. If some joker is making

nuisance calls then I dont want either of you answering, no matter what. If it

happens again, just unplug the socket. Understand?”

Mum was just sitting there. It didnt feel at all right.

Dads “DID YOU HEAR ME?” was like a brick through a window. Julia

and me jumped. “Yes Dad.”

Mum, me, and Dad ate our butterscotch Angel Delight without a word. I

didnt dare even look at my parents. I couldnt ask to get down early too cause

Juliad already used that card. Why I was in the doghouse was clear enough,

but God knows why Mum and Dad were giving each other the silent treatment.

After the last spoonful of Angel Delight Dad said, “Lovely, Helena,

thank you. Jason and Ill do the washing up, wont we, Jason?”

Mum just made this nothing-sound and went upstairs.

Dad washed up, humming a nothing-song. I put the dirty dishes in the

hatch, then went into the kitchen to dry. I shouldve just shut up, but I

thought I could make the day turn safely normal if I just said the right thing.

“Do you get”—Hangman loves giving me grief over this word—“nightingales

in January, Dad? I mightve heard one this morning. In the woods.”

Dad was Brillo-padding a pan. “How should I know?”

I pushed on. Usually Dad likes talking about nature and stuff. “But that

bird at granddads hospice. You said it was a nightingale.”

“Huh. Fancy you remembering that.” Dad stared over the back lawn at

the icicles on the summerhouse. Then this noise came out of Dad like hed

entered the Worlds Miserablest Man of 1982 Competition. “Just concentrate

on those glasses, Jason, before you drop one.” He switched on Radio 2 for the

weather forecast, then began cutting up the 1981 Highway Code with scissors.

Dad bought the updated 1982 Highway Code the day it came out, and

he says old ones could cause accidents if theyre not destroyed. Tonight most

of the British Isles will see temperatures plunging well below zero. Motorists

in Scotland and the North should be careful of black ice on the roads, and

the Midlands should anticipate widespread patches of freezing fog.

Up in my room I played the Game of Life, but being two players at once is no

fun. Julias friend Kate Alfrick called for Julia to study together. But they were

just gossiping about whos going out with who in the sixth form, and playing

Police singles. My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded

city. Mum and Dad at lunch. Hangman colonizing the alphabet. At this rate

Im going to have to learn sign language. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox.

Theyve never exactly been my best mates but today theyd ganged up against

me. Neal Brose was in on it too. Last, the sour aunt in the woods worried me.

How come?

Wished there was a crack to slip through and leave all this stuff behind.

Next week Im thirteen but thirteen looks way worse than twelve. Julia moans

nonstop about being eighteen but eighteens epic, from where Im standing.

No official bedtime, twice my pocket money, and for Julias eighteenth she

went to Tanyas Night Club in Worcester with her thousand and one friends.

Tanyass got the only xenon disco laser light in Europe! How ace is that?

Dad drove off up Kingfisher Meadows, alone.

Mum must still be in her room. Shes there more and more recently.

To cheer myself up I put on my granddads Omega. Dad called me into

his office on Boxing Day and said he had something very important to give

me, from my grandfather. Dadd been keeping it till I was mature enough to

look after it myself. It was a watch. An Omega Seamaster De Ville. Granddad

bought it off a real live Arab in a port called Aden in 1949. Adens in Arabia

and once it was British. Hed worn it every day of his life, even the moment

he died. That fact makes the Omega more special, not scary. The Omegas

face is silver and wide as a 50p but as thin as a tiddlywink. “A sign of an excellent

watch,” Dad said, grave as grave, “is its thinness. Not like these plastic

tubs teenagers strap to their wrist these days to strut about in.”

Where I hid my Omega is a work of genius and second in security only to

my Oxo tin under the loose floorboard. Using a Stanley knife I hollowed out

a crappy-looking book called Woodcraft for Boys. Woodcraft for Boyss on my

shelf between real books. Julia often snoops in my room, but shes never discovered

this hiding place. Id know cause I keep a 1⁄2p coin balanced on it at

the back. Plus, if Juliad found it shedve copied my ace idea for sure. Ive

checked her bookshelf for false spines and there arent any.

Outside I heard an unfamiliar car. A sky-blue VW Jetta was crawling

along the curb, as if its driver was searching for a house number. At the end

of our cul-de-sac the driver, a woman, did a three-point turn, stalled once,

and drove off up Kingfisher Meadows. I shouldve memorized the number

plate in case its on Police 999.

Granddad was the last grandparent to die, and the only one I have any

memories of. Not many. Chalking roads for my Corgi cars down his garden

path. Watching Thunderbirds at his bungalow in Grange-over-Sands and

drinking pop called Dandelion and Burdock.

I wound the stopped Omega up and set the time to a fraction after three.

Unborn Twin murmured, Go to the lake.

The stump of an elm guards a bottleneck in the path through the woods. Sitting

on the stump was Squelch. Squelchs real names Mervyn Hill but one

time when we were changing for P.E., he pulled down his trousers and we

saw he had a nappy on. About nine, hedve been. Grant Burch started the

Squelch nickname and its been years since anyones called him Mervyn. Its

easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname.

So anyway, Squelch was stroking something furry and moon gray in the

crook of his elbow. “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”

“All right, Squelch. What you got there, then?”

Squelchs got stained teeth. “Aint showin!”

“Go on. You can show us.

Squelch mumbled, “Kit Kat.”

“A Kit Kat? A chocolate bar?”

Squelch showed me the head of a sleeping kitten. “Kitty cat! Finders

keepers, losers weepers.”

“Wow. A cat. Whered you find her?”

“By the lake. Crack o dawn, bfore anyone else got to the lake. I hided her

while we did British Bulldogs. Hided her in a box.”

“Why didnt you show it to anyone?”

“Burch and Swinyard and Redmarley and them bastardsdve tooked her

aways why! Finders keepers, losers weepers. I hided her. Now I come back.”

You never know with Squelch. “Shes quiet, isnt she?”

Squelch just petted her.

“Could I hold her, Merv?”

“If you dont breathe a word to no one”—Squelch eyed me dubiously—

“you can stroke her. But take them gloves off. Theyre nobbly.”

So I took off my goalie gloves and reached out to touch the kitten.

Squelch lobbed the kitten at me. “Its yours now!”

Taken by surprise, I caught the kitten.

“Yours!” Squelch ran off laughing back to the village. “Yours!”

The kitten was cold and stiff as a pack of meat from the fridge. Only now

did I realize it was dead. I dropped it. It thudded.

“Finders,” Squelch called, his voice dying off, “keepers!”

Using two sticks, I lifted the kitten into a clump of nervy snowdrops.

So still, so dignified. Died in the frost last night, I spose.

Dead things show you what youll be too one day.

Nobodyd be out on the frozen lake, Id suspected, and there wasnt a soul.

Superman II was on TV. Id seen it at Malvern Cinema about two years ago

on Neal Broses birthday. It wasnt bad but not worth sacrificing my own private

frozen lake for. Clark Kent gives up his powers just to have sexual intercourse

with Lois Lane in a glittery bed. Whod make such a stupid swap? If

you could fly? Deflect nuclear missiles into space? Turn back time by spinning

the planet in reverse? Sexual intercourse cant be that good.

I sat on the empty bench to eat a slab of Jamaican Ginger Cake, then went

out on the ice. Without other kids watching, I didnt fall once. Round and

around in swoopy anticlockwise loops I looped, a stone on the end of a string.

Overhanging trees tried to touch my head with their fingers. Rooks craw . . .

craw . . . crawed, like old people whove forgotten why theyve come upstairs.

A sort of trance.

The afternoond gone and the sky was turning to outer space when I noticed

another kid on the lake. This boy skated at my speed and followed my orbit,

but always stayed on the far side of the lake. So if I was at twelve oclock, he

was at six. When I got to eleven, he was at five, and so on, always across from

me. My first thought was he was a kid from the village, just mucking about. I

even thought he might be Nick Yew cause he was sort of stocky. But the

strange thing was, if I looked at this kid directly for more than a moment, dark

spaces sort of swallowed him up. The first couple of times I thought hed gone

home. But after another half loop of the lake, hed be back. Just at the edge of

my vision. Once I skated across the lake to intercept him, but he vanished before

I got to the island in the middle. When I carried on orbiting the pond, he

was back.

Go home, urged the nervy Maggot in me. What if hes a ghost?

My Unborn Twin cant stand Maggot. What if he is a ghost?

“Nick?” I called out. My voice sounded indoors. “Nick Yew?”

The kid carried on skating.

I called out, “Ralph Bredon?”

His answer took a whole orbit to reach me.

Butchers boy.

If a doctord told me the kid across the lake was my imagination, and that

his voice was only words I thought, I wouldntve argued. If Juliad told me I

was convincing myself Ralph Bredon was there to make myself feel more special

than I am, I wouldntve argued. If a mysticd told me that one exact moment

in one exact place can act as an antenna that picks up faint traces of lost

people, I wouldntve argued.

“Whats it like?” I called out. “Isnt it cold?”

The answer took another orbit to reach me.

You get used to the cold.

Do the kids whod drowned in the lake down the years mind me trespassing

on their roof? Do they want new kids to fall through? For company? Do

they envy the living? Even me?

I called out, “Can you show me? Show me what its like?”

The moond swum into the lake of night.

We skated one orbit.

The shadow-kid was still there, crouching as he skated, just like I was.

We skated another orbit.

An owl or something fluttered low across the lake.

“Hey?” I called out. “Did you hear me? I want to know what its—”

The ice shrucked me off my feet. For a helterskeltery moment I was in

midair at an unlikely height. Bruce Lee doing a karate kick, that high. I knew

it wasnt going to be a soft landing but I hadnt guessed how painful a slam itd

be. The crack shattered from my ankle to my jaw to my knuckles, like an ice

cube plopped into warm squash. No, bigger than an ice cube. A mirror,

dropped from Skylab height. Where it hit the earth, where it smashed into

daggers and thorns and invisible splinters, thats my ankle.

I spun and slid to a shuddery stop by the edge of the lake.

For a bit, all I could do was lie there, basking in that supernatural pain.

Even Giant Haystacksdve whimpered. “Bloody bugger,” I gasped to plug my

tears. “Bloody bloody bloody bugger!” Through the flinty trees I could just

hear the sound of the main road but there was no way I could walk that far. I

tried to stand but just fell on my arse, wincing with fresh pain. I couldnt

move. Id die of pneumonia if I stayed where I was. I had no idea what to do.

“You,” sighed the sour aunt. “We suspected youd come knocking again

soon.”

“I hurt”—my voiced gone all bendy—“I hurt my ankle.”

“So I see.”

“Its killing me.”

“I daresay.”

“Can I just phone my dad to come and get me?”

“We dont care for telephones.”

“Could you go and get help? Please?”

“We dont ever leave our house. Not at night. Not here.”

“Please.” The underwatery pain shook as loud as electric guitars. “I cant

walk.”

“I know about bones and joints. Youd best come inside.”

Inside was colder than outside. Bolts behind me slid home and a lock

turned. “Down you go,” the sour aunt said, “down to the parlor. Ill be right

along, once Ive prepared your cure. But whatever you do, be quiet. Youll be

very sorry if you wake my brother.”

“All right . . .” I glanced away. “Which ways your parlor?”

But the darkd shuffled itself and the sour auntd gone.

Way down the hallway was a blade of muddy light, so that was the direction

I limped. God knows how I walked up the rooty, twisty path from the

frozen lake on that busted ankle. But I mustve done, tove got here. I passed

a ladder of stairs. Enough muffled moonlight fell down it for me to make out

an old photograph hanging on the wall. A submarine in an arctic-looking

port. The crew stood on deck, all saluting. I walked on. The blade of light

wasnt getting any nearer.

The parlor was a bit bigger than a big wardrobe and stuffed with museumy

stuff. An empty parrot cage, a mangle, a towering dresser, a scythe. Junk, too.

A bent bicycle wheel and one soccer boot, caked in silt. A pair of ancient

skates, hanging on a coat stand. There was nothing modern. No fire. Nothing

electrical apart from a bare brown bulb. Hairy plants sent bleached roots out

of tiny pots. God it was cold! The sofa sagged under me and sssssssssed. One

other doorway was screened by beads on strings. I tried to find a position

where my ankle hurt less but there wasnt one.

Time went by, I suppose.

The sour aunt held a china bowl in one hand and a cloudy glass in the

other. “Take off your sock.”

My ankle was balloony and limp. The sour aunt propped my calf on a

footstool and knelt by it. Her dress rustled. Apart from the blood in my ears

and my jagged breathing there was no other sound. Then she dipped her

hand into the bowl and began smearing a bready goo onto my ankle.

My ankle shuddered.

“This is a poultice.” She gripped my shin. “To draw out the swelling.”

The poultice sort of tickled but the pain was too vicious and I was fighting

the cold too hard. The sour aunt smeared the goo on till it was used up

and my ankled completely clagged. She handed me the cloudy glass. “Drink

this.”

“It smells like . . . marzipan.”

“Its for drinking. Not smelling.”

“But what is it?”

“Itll help take the pain away.”

Her face told me I had no real choice. I swigged back the liquid in one go

like you do milk of magnesia. It was syrupy-thick but didnt taste of much. I

asked, “Is your brother asleep upstairs?”

“Where else would he be, Ralph? Shush now.”

“My names not Ralph,” I told her, but she acted like she hadnt heard.

Clearing up the misunderstandingdve been a massive effort, and now Id

stopped moving. I just couldnt fight the cold anymore. Funny thing was, as

soon as I gave in, a lovely drowsiness tugged me downward. I pictured Mum,

Dad, and Julia sitting at home watching The Paul Daniels Magic Show but

their faces melted away, like reflections on the backs of spoons.

The cold poked me awake. I didnt know where or who or when I was. My

ears felt bitten and I could see my breath. A china bowl sat on a footstool and

my ankle was crusted in something hard and spongy. Then I remembered

everything, and sat up. The pain in my foot had gone but my head didnt feel

right, like a crowd flown in and couldnt get out. I wiped the poultice off my

foot with a snotty hanky. Unbelievably at first, my ankle swiveled fine, cured,

like magic. I pulled on my sock and trainer, stood up, and tested my weight.

There was a faint twinge, but only cause I was looking for it. Through the

beaded doorway I called out, “Hello?”

No answer came. I passed through the crackly beads into a tiny kitchen

with a stone sink and a massive oven. Big enough for a kid to climb in. Its

doord been left open, but inside was dark as that cracked tomb under Saint

Gabriels. I wanted to thank the sour aunt for curing my ankle.

Make sure the back door opens, warned Unborn Twin.

It didnt. Neither did the frost-flowered sash window. Its catch and

hingesd been painted over long ago and itd take a chisel to persuade it open,

at least. I wondered what the time was and squinted at my granddads Omega

but it was too dark in the tiny kitchen to see. Suppose it was late evening? Id

get back and my tead be waiting under a Pyrex dish. Mum and Dad go ape if

Im not back in time for tea. Or spose itd gone midnight? Spose the policed

been alerted? Jesus. Or what if Id slept right through one short day and into

the night of the next? The Malvern Gazetteer and Midlands Todaydve already

shown my school photo and sent out appeals for witnesses. Jesus.

Squelch wouldve reported seeing me heading to the frozen lake. Frogmen

might be searching for me there, right now.

This was a bad dream.

No, worse than that. Back in the parlor, I looked at my grandfathers

Omega and saw that there was no time. My voice whimpered, “No.” The

glass face, the hour hand, and the minute handd gone and only a bent second

hand was left. When I fell on the ice, it mustve happened then. The casing

was split and half its innardsd spilt out.

Granddads Omegad never once gone wrong in four decades.

In less than a fortnight, Id killed it.

Wobbly with dread, I walked up the hallway and rasped up the twisted stairs,

“Hello?” Silent as night in an ice age. “I have to go!” Worry about the

Omegad swatted off worry about being in this house, but I still darednt shout

in case I woke the brother. “Ive got to go home now,” I called, a bit louder.

No reply. I decided to just leave by the front door. Id come back in the daytime

to thank her. The bolts slid open easily enough, but the old-style lock

was another matter. Without the key it wouldnt open. That was that. Id have

to go upstairs, wake the old biddy to get her key, and if she got annoyed that

was just tough titty. Something, something, had to be done about the catastrophe

of the smashed watch. God knows what, but I couldnt do it inside the

House in the Woods.

The stairs curved up steeper. Soon I had to use my hands to grip the stairs

above me, or Idve fallen back. How on earth the sour aunt went up and

down in that big rookish dress was anybodys guess. Finally, I hauled myself

onto a tiny landing with two doors. A slitty window let in a glimmer. One door

had to be the sour aunts room. The other had to be the brothers.

Lefts got a power that right hasnt, so I clasped the iron doorknob on the

left door. It sucked the warmth from my hand, my arm, my blood.

Scrit-scrat.

I froze.

Scrit-scrat.

A deathwatch beetle? Rat in the loft? Pipe freezing up?

Which room was the scrit-scrat coming from?

The iron doorknob made a coiling creak as I turned it.

Powdery moonlight lit the attic room through the snowflake-lace curtain. Id

guessed right. The sour aunt lay under a quilt with her dentures in a jar by

her bed, still as a marble duchess on a church tomb. I shuffled over the tipsy

floor, nervous at the thought of waking her. What if she forgot who I was and

thought Id come to murder her and screamed for help and had a stroke? Her

hair spilt over her folded face like pondweed. A cloud of breath escaped her

mouth every ten or twenty heartbeats. Only that proved she was made of flesh

and blood like me.

“Can you hear me?”

No, Id have to shake her awake.

My hand was halfway to her shoulder when that scrit-scrat noise started

up again, deep inside her.

Not a snore. A death rattle.

Go into the other bedroom. Wake her brother. She needs an ambulance.

No. Smash your way out. Run to Isaac Pye in the Black Swan for help. No.

Theyd ask why youd been in the House in the Woods. Whatd you say? You

dont even know this womans name. Its too late. Shes dying, right now. Im

certain. The scrit-scrats uncoiling. Louder, waspier, daggerier.

Her windpipe bulges as her soul squeezes out of her heart.

Her worn-out eyes flip awake like a dolls, black, glassy, shocked.

From her black crack mouth, a blizzard rushes out.

A silent roaring hangs here.

Not going anywhere.

From the Hardcover edition.

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