Chapter 1, again.
If you met eleven year old Ellie Gardiner for the first time you might notice her brown hair, probably half-covering her face. You might also notice how she is slightly small for her age, but with gangly limbs that suggest a growth spurt can’t be far away. If you look harder, you might see the frayed cuffs of her school cardigan, made that way by her habit of pulling at them when she is anxious about something. If you look harder still, you might observe how she appears to be reluctant to look directly at you. Instead you’ll perhaps see her peering at you through her hair, or perhaps stealing a glance and then looking away again. If she’s noticed you studying her, it’s entirely possible that she’s now scowling at you. Her manners could use some work, to be sure. Her expression is probably so unfriendly that you’ve looked away again, uncomfortable with the idea that someone you don’t even know has apparently taken such a dislike to you. When you look back, you’ll see her skulking off. Ellie Gardiner is not an expert at making friends.
What you are less likely to have noticed about her is what makes Ellie special. Of course, we are all special in our own way, but Ellie has something about her that marks her as different to most other children – most other adults, in fact. To be fair to you, it isn’t something that can be easily seen or understood and it isn’t something Ellie is likely to talk to you about. She feels uncomfortable about it and, at this point in the story, she doesn’t understand it herself. She will, in time, but we are getting ahead of ourselves here. It’s best that we follow her story as it happens, at least as far as we can.
Ellie Gardiner, though she doesn’t know it yet, comes from a long line of curious people. I suppose you might say it runs in the family. You know, like some genetic illnesses can: haemophilia, for example. If one or both of your parents carry a genetic mutation in their DNA, you might inherit the mutation, or you might inherit the disease itself. This might be how Ellie came to inherit her special condition, although it is so rare that nobody has really studied it, so it’s hard to say for sure.
In the beginning, Ellie felt quite ‘normal’. She lived at home with her mother and they got on well. She had a close relationship with her grandmother, whom she saw for holidays and who only ever told her how marvellous she was and who seemed to delight in her company. If somebody believes you are wonderful and constantly proves it to you in their actions, you will believe them and start to feel as beautiful as they say you are. It’s why parents and teachers should always be on the lookout for ways to make you want to celebrate yourself. Unfortunately, you need more than one person to convince you of how superb you really are and you need to hear it more often than every now and then, when you go to visit them. Ellie didn’t quite have that. When she was still very young, younger than you are now, she and her mum ran into some problems. They were small problems at first – things like her mother feeling unwell and being unable to do as many of the things as she’d hoped for – but over time those problems joined forces and became bigger problems. They had to move house a few times, which meant moving school a few times. Never being able to get used to your surrounding means never quite being able to feel settled. Ellie got into the habit of expecting to move all over again. She became tired of leaving friends behind, of the inevitable breakups just before she left and so she gave up making friends altogether. This is actually a good deal harder than you think: humans are wired to make friends with other humans and it is hard to resist the pull of a friendly smile or an invitation to play. Ellie found that she had to push people away by becoming really quite disagreeable. Over time she became good at it. It was a way to protect herself from more hurt, she thought, but of course it only made life more difficult.
Eventually, hearing about this from some thirty or forty miles away, Ellie’s grandmother decided, ‘enough was enough,’ and suggested Ellie and her mother move in with her. Ellie’s mother was reluctant at first, but it seemed like a good idea to Ellie and that’s how she came to move house one more time and live at her grandmother’s. It’s also how come she finished primary school earlier than her peers and had more time than usual to kill, that long summer, before starting secondary school near to Gran’s house. ‘It’s not worth your while starting another primary school for just a few weeks, only to have to start all over again in September,’ said her grandmother. Ellie agreed.
The other thing that prompted Gran to keep a close eye on her granddaughter was an apparent health condition that Ellie was developing. At times, Ellie had begun to feel the world was slipping away from her. She would feel faint and often fall to the ground, apparently losing consciousness for a few minutes. Later she would complain of hearing strange noises as she fell and feeling the world tilt. Her mother took her to the doctor, of course, and various causes were suggested, but none quite seemed to fit. One doctor even suggested she was making them up, as a way of drawing attention to herself. Ellie found this very insulting and almost laughable: hadn’t she spent the last few years trying to draw as little attention to herself as possible? Ellie continued having her ‘turns,’ as they called them, and her mother continued to worry. Gran thought, to herself, that it couldn’t hurt to simply keep a close eye on Ellie, to feed her up with good food and to try and remove as many of the stresses from her life as she could. Gran believed in curing a lot of ailments in this way.
And thus it was that Ellie found herself living in small village in Surrey, with plenty of time to herself and not many people around to share it with. Anyone her age was still in school, anyone not her age was most likely busy. Gran encouraged her to spend time out of doors and she began to explore the streets close to her new home. On one of her explorations, Ellie found a park, on the way to the sweet shop. She found that if she timed her visits for the morning, the older children were all at school and the younger children were mostly at preschool or toddler groups, so she pretty much had the place to herself. She enjoyed sitting on the swings, leaning back and watching the sky and the treetops move. She found her ‘turns’ became more infrequent and she was hopeful that they were stopping altogether. She was no stranger to her own company and came to view the park as ‘hers’.
One morning, as she arrived at the park, she was surprised to see a girl already sitting on the swings. She stopped for a moment, ducking behind a hedge so she could see the girl, without the girl seeing her. Ellie guessed that the girl was younger than herself – her feet were higher off the ground than Ellie’s when she sat on the swing – and she also noted that the girl wore a frown, as she often did herself. Deciding that the girl did not pose much of a threat, Ellie stood up from behind the hedge, pushed open the metal gate and entered the park. She really wanted to sit on the swings, but she had no wish to strike up a conversation, so she went for a the slide instead. She climbed up via the slope, which always seemed more fun than climbing the steps, turned around at the top and slid back down. As she reached the bottom, she noticed that the strange girl was leaning forward on the swing, elbows on thighs, head resting in her hands and staring at Ellie. Staring intently at her, in fact. ‘How rude!’ thought Ellie. She decided to ignore her and climbed the slide a second time. She paused at the top and looked over at the swings. There was the girl, still staring at her. Ellie slid down and asked, as casually as she could, ‘What are YOU looking at?’ To her surprise, the girl jumped, as if startled. She gawped at Ellie for a second and then quickly looked around and behind her. She looked back and made as if to say something in return, but instead she sat there with her mouth hanging open. Then she carefully and lightly gestured to herself.
‘Yes, you!’ Ellie replied. ‘There’s no one else here! Why are you looking at me all the time?’ She wouldn’t normally be this brave. In fact, she probably would have just left the park, but this girl really was very small and Ellie felt some rights in protecting her territory from this interloper.
The girl looked even more startled and said, ‘I didn’t think you could s…I thought you hadn’t noticed me.’
Ellie shrugged. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere and, frankly, she hadn’t time to pursue it. Actually, she had about ten weeks at her disposal, but she wasn’t thinking about that just now.
‘Sit on the other swing,’ said the girl.
Ellie looked at her. She did want to sit on the swing but she didn’t want to be bossed around by this girl. She shrugged again.
‘Please?’ the girl tried. ‘Nobody never talks to me here usually.’
Ellie knew how that felt. She softened a little. Plus, she really wanted to know, ‘Do you come here often?’
‘Sometimes,’ was the vague reply.
‘I’ve never seen you here before,’ Ellie remarked.
‘I seen you!’
Great, thought Ellie. Now she had a miniature stalker. Perhaps the girl had spied on her when she was busy watching the sky. Perhaps she had hidden behind the hedge as Ellie had just now. She wondered if the girl had seen her do that and felt slightly guilty. She sat on the other swing and waited, waited to see what might happen, if anything. It felt a bit odd, this hanging out with someone roughly her own age.
Nothing much happened, so Ellie asked, ‘Where are you from?’
‘Farm,’ said the girl. ‘Well, London really, but I’m here for now, aren’t I?’
‘I’m from near London but I’m living here. Well, for now, anyway.’ Ellie’s interest picked up. ‘What are you doing here, if you’re from London?’
”Vacuee,’ said the girl and Ellie raised an eyebrow. Did she mean ‘evacuee’, like they’d just learned about in school? She wondered if the girl meant ‘refugee’. She’d heard there were many about, seen the pictures on the news and heard Mum say how frightening it must be for these people, having to leave everything they’d ever known and journey out into goodness knows where, just looking for someone to protect them and say, ‘You’re safe here,’ and how many people refused to say that to them. Ellie had secretly vowed to say it, if the chance arose. Perhaps this was that chance, although the girl’s accent was so convincingly ‘London’ that she wondered how she’d had time to perfect it.
‘You what?’ asked Ellie.
‘E-vac-u-ee,’ said the girl, as though talking to an idiot. ‘Name’s June,’ she offered.
‘Ellie. What are you an evacuee from, exactly?’
‘War, of course,’ snorted June. ‘There’s bombs on London, haven’t you heard?’ she looked incredulous. ‘There was one just down the road, even, but everyone says I’m safer here in the countryside, so here I am.’
‘Hitler’s bombs?’ asked Ellie, fearful of looking a complete fool, but curious enough to risk it.
‘Yes! Who else’s?’ June gave a despairing shrug. Evidently she did think Ellie a fool.
‘But….June, the war ended in 1945.’
‘Did it?’ asked June. ‘So I’ve got…’ she counted on her fingers, evidently not a maths whizz, thought Ellie, ‘three more years of this?’
Ellie briefly considered it strange how June didn’t question Ellie’s apparent knowledge of the future. She must be lying for…for attention?
‘June, the war isn’t on now,’ Ellie offered, hoping to catch her out.
‘I know that, don’t I? It was on this morning, it’s not on now, it’ll be back on this afternoon. You must know that?’
Ellie looked at June with something between pity and exasperation. What an odd child, she thought.
‘Oh, or have you not done any yet? Sorry. I didn’t think about that. I didn’t think maybe you was just starting, you know?’
‘Just starting WHAT?’ Ellie demanded, utterly confused by this clearly crazy girl.
‘Oh, you really don’t know, do you? Sorry,’ and just like that, she was gone. Not gone as in ‘got up, walked off and left the park,’ but gone as in vanished – completely, in an instant!
Ellie sat there for a few moments, opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish, trying to work out what just happened. Had she just seen a ghost from the past? That must be it – there was no other explanation. She got up slowly and walked out of the park, like any normal person would, and walked home. She decided against telling Gran, who would most likely ask if Ellie had any other imaginary friends. Ellie was quite sure she hadn’t imagined this and, unless her ‘turns’ were taking a new direction, she simply couldn’t explain it in any way that would make sense. She decided not to try.