I thought Gran would ask me questions over tea, but she doesn’t. Instead she has her own news to share. She tells me Mum phoned today. She’s doing OK, it seems – maybe even a little better than she has for a while. This is good news! I feel guilty, though: I love staying with Gran and I’ve been so busy falling in and out of World War II that it’s only now I realise I’ve scarcely given Mum a second thought. Is Time Travelling a good enough excuse for forgetting your own mother, I wonder?
‘So what do you think, Ellie?’ Gran asks and I look at her blankly. I haven’t really been listening. I’m still trying to figure out how and if Gran could see June. Besides which, time travel takes it out of you.
‘Huh?’ I ask. ‘Er…sorry, Gran. Could you just say that bit again? I didn’t quite catch all of it.’
‘Which bit?’ asks Gran and I swear her eyes are laughing at me, though her face is serious enough.
‘Er…the bit after…um…’
‘The bit after you stopped listening?’ she asks. She is smiling now! Even her mouth has given up pretending. I swear adults are so unpredictable! Generally they get annoyed at you if you don’t listen. Apparently this time it’s amusing. ‘Ellie, you missed all the good stuff, my love! Your mum is delighted that you seem to have settled in here. She’s really pleased that you seem to be having fewer of your turns.’
Ha! If only they knew the half of it! Gran explains that Mum feels well enough to join us in a few weeks time and that we will all be living together in Gran’s house.
‘What about school?’ I ask, mouthful of mashed potato.
‘Finish your mouthful, Ellie!’ Gran admonishes. ‘Are you missing school?’
‘No!’ I reply, perhaps a little too emphatically. ‘But I’ll have to go one eventually, right?’
Gran says she and Mum have talked about this. Nice of them to consult me, I think, sarcastically. They have decided I should start in September, at the secondary school near here. ‘It’s only a short bus ride away,’ says Gran. ‘You can make new friends.’
‘I already have friends here,’ I say and I look at Gran to see how she reacts.
‘Good,’ she says,’ but if you mean that little girl you were with at the park, I was thinking about children your own age. She looks younger than you, Ellie. You’ll need school friends.’
A-ha, so she did see June! Before I can ask her more about this, though, she’s back onto the subject of Mum and our proposed new living arrangements. She’s very animated about all of this and I am beginning to think this was her master plan all along: to get Mum and I both living here where she could keep an eye on us and feed us beef and mashed potato. It’s a good thing Gran’s such a good cook, I think.
‘So what do you think, Ellie – about your mum living here, I mean? Wouldn’t that be great?’
This is what adults call a ‘loaded question’ and the only correct answer is an enthusiastic yes, but I want to check something first. I do want my mum back but I want her back properly.
‘Is she well enough?’ I ask.
‘She’s better than she was and getting better than that,’ says Gran, and I know that’s as good an answer as I’m going to get, so I nod. That doesn’t seem enough though, judging by Gran’s face, so I get up and throw my arms around her.
‘It would be wonderful, Gran,’ I say, and when I pull back to look at her she’s not just smiling but beaming with happiness. That’s when I begin to understand something: that part of this getting better business is going to involve telling little lies to start with. I realise that we are going to have to lie about how we feel, until we feel it for real. What’s the expression? Fake it ’til you make it, that’s it. I feel very grown up, all of a sudden.
After tea I ask Gran if I can pop back to the park for a few minutes. I want to see if June is there, of course, but I’m not about to say that: little lies, remember? Instead I say I thought I could buy us ice lollies at the shop nearby. ‘For pudding, Gran.’
‘Absolutely not, young lady!’ she replies. ‘I’m not letting you gad about the park and goodness knows where else, after the day you’ve had! You had another one of your turns. It’s bath and an early bed time for you, do you understand?
I nod, now feeling considerably less grown up than I did a few minutes ago. I begin to wonder if Gran’s enthusiasm for our new living arrangements is such a good idea after all. I can only hope that, with Mum here too, Gran will have someone else to boss around and fuss over.
Next morning after breakfast I am really keen to go and see if June is in the park. I tell Gran I am feeling much better and that I want to pop out to post a letter to Mum.
‘A letter? I thought you young people only communicated via electronic means these days!’
Ha ha – she really doesn’t think Mum ever grew up, does she? ‘You young people.’ Mum is ancient! Well, not as ancient as Gran. Or June: the oldest nine year old of all time. ‘Of all time’. There’s a phrase that suddenly holds a lot more meaning for me. I take advantage of Gran’s bemused approach to my old fashioned ideas about the letter which, incidentally, I have not written, and slip out of the front door.
June isn’t there when I reach the park. One of the swings is swaying slightly and it’s one of those hot, still August days with no breeze, so I wonder if I’ve just missed her. Mum always says that an empty, moving swing creeps her out. I usually point out that it’s moving because someone has just jumped off it, but she seems to prefer her ghost explanation. I wonder for a moment if we’re both wrong and parks the world over are full of evidence of recently departed time travelling children. There can’t be that many of us though, surely? We’d have all got together by now, compared notes, worked out all the possible triggers, solved most of the world’s mysteries and been back in time for tea. Unless of course we’re all just missing one another, popping back and forth in our own separate time zones. It’s a lonely business, this time travelling. Except that I have June and possibly Lillian…and maybe Gran. I really need to find out more about that! While I think about all of this I settle myself onto the still moving swing. I’ve barely sat down on it, however, when there is an almighty, ‘Crack!’ and I’m pushed forward, tipped off the swing and onto the ground. What feels like only a nanosecond later, June is lying almost on top of me, half-sprawled on the ground.
‘Ow!’ I say indignantly, inspecting my knees for grazes and my elbows for bruises. ‘What did you do that for?’
June doesn’t reply right away. In fact, she is wheezing, trying hard to catch her breath. She looks even shabbier than usual and, as she lifts her face, I see that her lip is cut and bleeding. I remember Lillian’s account of one of June’s disappearances and realise that I must be on the other end of that time
‘Ow,’ I say again, but this time it’s in sympathy. ‘What happened to you?’
June pauses for a moment longer, her breath coming on short gasps. She sounds as if she ran here, but you can’t run from 1942; it’s an awfully long way!
‘Got me,’ she manages at last.
‘Who did? Who got you?’ although I know the answer.
‘They did – the Others.’
June’s eyes are wide, frightened, and I’m suddenly very angry on her behalf. I’m angry that these other kids should get such a kick out of terrorising June. I look at her again. She’s small for her age, just a scrap of a thing really, as Gran might say. She’s away from home and who knows where her parents are – we’ve never talked about it. Oh, and there’s a war on. The enormity of June’s situation hits me and I experience a tangle of emotions. On the one hand I’m angry and want to go back to that 1940’s and kick some wartime backsides! On the other I am almost overwhelmed with a desire to protect June, to stay with her and keep her safe. I put my arm around her shoulder and she sinks down into her own body. She seems defeated and this worries me. June usually has so much fight in her that I think she’d happily take on Hitler and his armies. This is a new side to her and I don’t like it. It makes me want to cry too. It seems to be just a moment though, as she quickly curls her hands into fists and uses them to rub her eyes dry. Taking a corner of her dress she wipes her nose and face, then takes a deep breath and says,
‘I will get them, Ellie. I will. How long have I got?’
‘How long? For what?’
‘The war, silly. You said you’d learned about it in school. You must know when it ended. How long?’
‘Oh, 1945. The Second World War ended in 1945. You’ve still got almost three years of it. Sorry.’
‘Too long,’ she says. ‘Too long. I can’t wait for it all to be over. I’ll have to get them now.’
I’m surprised that she doesn’t ask who won. Three years might not seem so long if you knew you were on the winning side, but I think she’s too busy fighting a war of her own. Her fighting spirit is back now and I’m worried she might do something silly, or dangerous. The fear in her eyes has been replaced by anger. What can she do, though? One small girl against an army of three who are out to get you. What have they got against her, I wonder? She’s different, she doesn’t belong here. Sometimes that’s enough to make them hate you, I guess.
‘Do you think they’re afraid of you, June?’ I ask hoping she’ll stop and think about it all.
‘No,’ she says flatly. ‘But they will be.’