The next few weeks went go in a whirl of activity. Mum moves in with us, there is school uniform, shoes and stationery to sort out. Mum, Gran and I spend an age in the uniform suppliers, with me trying on every possible uniform combination. It is hot today and my new school clothes feel stiff and constricting, although not nearly as constricting as Mum’s fussing over me. ‘Are you too hot? Is it too much? We can come back another day if it’s too much? You must say if it is.’ Then, to the shop assistant, ‘She has these turns, you know. I’m worried about her overheating.’
Gran and I exchange sneaky smiles and the shop assistant, completely missing Mum’s point, says, ‘It’ll be cooler in September and they let them remove the blazers in lessons.’
‘Well, well,’ says Gran, seeing me in the final and full get-up, ‘you look grammar-school smart!’
I’m not going to a grammar school: there have been no grammar schools in this area since before Mum was born although, going by my peculiar timeline, I suppose you could say, ‘since a couple of weeks ago,’ but let’s not. Then Mum and Gran exchange a look and I notice they’re both dabbing at their eyes, Gran with a little hanky and Mum with a rather frayed tissue. I roll my eyes and Mum does a sort of snivelly laugh, ‘Oh, you’re a teenager now, are you?’
I’m glad when that’s over and the new clothes are bagged and paid for. Gran and Mum have a little argument on the way out, over whether sewn in labels are essential or whether a biro on the clothes label will do. No prizes for guessing who’s in which camp, there! I take advantage of the confusion this causes, to fleece them both for an extra-fancy pencil case. Mum is worried it’s the, ‘wrong thing,’ and I won’t ‘fit in’. I assure her it’s perfect and that I’m sure I will fit in just fine. I’m sure of nothing of the sort but if there’s one thing primary school taught me, it’s that it’s not just your pencil case that can mark you as different. Anyway, this one is really nice, with three zips and several compartments, so I don’t really care. Gran admires it, squeezes my shoulder and says, ‘She deserves such a beautiful pencil case,’ so that’s that sorted although, really, I think, it is just a pencil case!
Finally, suited, booted and kitted out, we head home, where there’s an envelope on the doormat, with a Canadian stamp and the now-familiar handwriting. ‘June!’ Gran and I say together and there’s a scramble to be the first to open it. Gran wins, because Mum tells me to mind my manners and then asks,
Gran and I both look guilty and then talk over one another.
‘You know – June-June.’
Mum shrugs and then flops into a chair, declaring herself worn out by the heat, the outing and the stress of seeing her daughter grow up before her eyes. I’m briefly glad that everyday things tire her out, before feeling guilty for thinking that at all.
‘Read it, Gran, read it!’ I plead. Gran shoots me a look, which is when it occurs to me that it might be full of clues that we don’t want to tell mum about. Not just yet, anyway. We’ve both agreed to let her settle in and make sure she’s feeling up to it, before we hit her with news that her daughter spent the summer time travelling, hanging out with a much younger version of her mother. Yeah, you put it like that and it’s not the easiest thing to explain, is it?
Gran opens the envelope and scans the letter. ‘…weather’s very hot here…forest fires…not near enough to be a danger to us but we keep an eye on the news…’ she reads aloud. She’s editing it as she goes along. Mum thinks she’s missing out the boring bits, I know she’s missing out the really interesting bits. ‘Ellie, go and pour your mum a glass of water,’ she says, and slips me the letter as I walk past. I tuck it into the waistband of my shorts, fetch a cold drink for mum, and then slip quietly upstairs to read it in peace.
The envelope was hand-addressed, but the letter is typed on a computer, which seems odd when you think that, until recently, June was a scruffy 9 year old, running around a farm and I’d never even see her pick up a pencil. How on earth did she catch up on all the intervening years? I’d asked her that in my last letter to her. Gran had agreed that might be a good thing to ask about since she’d tried to explain it, but not really managed. I read the letter as I lay on my bed: ‘Dear Lillian and Ellie,
‘Thank you for your letter. I was so thrilled to receive a reply from you both! I have to tell you, I’ve hardly been daring to wait for the mailman, although, if I’m honest, that’s pretty much all I’ve been done, I look back on my life and it seems, at times, like a dream – no one could live a life that full of adventure, surely? For many years, I hardly thought about it, it seemed so fantastical an idea. I genuinely viewed my adoption in Canada as the true beginning of my life and have celebrated the anniversary of that as my ‘birthday’ ever since. I never told my adoptive parents all of what happened to me before, which is something I’m sure you’ll understand. Mostly I pretended it hadn’t happened, but of course a small part of me knew that it had and, however hard I tried to forget, I always wondered. Receiving your reply was like a homecoming to me and it reminded me that all that upside-down, here and there stuff really happened. (You know what I mean by that, of course!) You asked me some questions, which I’ll do my best to answer, but first…
‘YOU’RE ALIVE! YOU’RE ALIVE AND I’M SO HAPPY! Ha – I had to get that off my chest.
‘You asked me what Canada is like…’
I skim read this bit. It’s not that I’m not interested in Canada, the wildlife (very interesting!), the weather (very varied!) and the wildfires (very scary!) but that belongs to a more ordinary kind of letter and life. I need to cut straight to the juicy stuff because, trust me, I have questions!
‘You also asked me how I managed to fit in a full life here, while you were meeting me between now and 1944, in an English park and farm. That’s a very good question! I’ll be honest, I don’t really know. All I know is we did it – we really did it – and that we share a bond that goes beyond being family. How many time travellers have you met? Besides myself, I’ve met two: you two. Perhaps we’re bumping into them all the time – perhaps there are many of us – but nobody ever talks about it, do they? I haven’t spoken about it in over 70 years. Imagine that, Ellie! Mind you, I also haven’t done it for over 70 years. I gather it’s the same for you, Lillian? Shame – I always thought you had such potential. I wonder if we stopped for the same reason? We no longer needed to: we were safe.
‘That’s thanks to you, Ellie. I stopped running away, I suppose. Once you fixed things for me, I stopped all of my time travelling – all of it, just like that. Ellie, we should be having a hero’s parade in your honor really, shouldn’t we? Except then we ‘d have to answer some very awkward questions and no one in their right mind would believe us.’
At this point I think I’m glad I just got a fancy pencil case. A parade would be so over the top! Eleven years perfecting the art of being invisible and then a parade? I laugh at the thought.
You know what, perhaps that’s another reason why I stopped! I never thought of it before now, but perhaps I shut myself off from the possibility. I don’t think I could do it again now if I tried. Could you, Lillian? Well, either way, you should try not to stop, Ellie. You should keep on travelling through time, solving mysteries and saving the day – it’s like your superpower. Try not to get pushed off swings by your assistants, though. Yes, I remember that, old as I am! So sorry, Ellie. I hope you’ll forgive me the grazed knees (and so much more). I remember that lie it was only a few weeks ago. Mind you… ha ha ha!’
I read to the end, which was mostly an invitation to go and see her in Canada, ‘if ever you can,’ and then put it down. I’m slightly disappointed by the lack of an explanation but I think she’s right: we don’t know, we just did it. We may well have to make do with this explanation and any other we think of, because asking anyone else for an explanation is likely to result in some awkward conversations. So we’re kind of on our own here, except there’s three of us and maybe many, many more, falling through time and wondering If they’ll bump into anyone else doing the same thing. I’m not sure yet, whether to stop time travelling, or whether to see if I can do it again. Maybe I’ll just see what happens. I won’t be so scared next time, though, because you’re never alone in time, are you? Think of all the people who’ve gone before you and imagine meeting some of them! It could be fun, I guess. Well, it wouldn’t be boring, put it that way. I’m open to the possibility, you know? If there’s a mystery going down on the family tree, I like to think I’d be ready and maybe a bit more clued-up this time, at least on the practicalities of time travel, if nothing else.
And so it was that the first proper day of school rolls around. I’m nervous at first – too nervous to eat much in the way of breakfast – but after being fussed over by Mum and Gran and having to pose for a photo in my new uniform, I’m more than ready to go. Mum asks if I’m sure I knew the way to the bus stop and I tell her, ‘Of course, I could find it any time,’ and then added, ‘In any time, even,’ which makes Gran snort with laughter and Mum look at her funny. I slip out the front gate and wave good bye. I’m nervous, of course, but I can see they are each nervous enough for all three of us, so I pretend otherwise and head off for the bus stop. I’m starting to wonder if pretending you’re brave is the key to everything.
As I round the corner, I can see some kids there already. Only a handful of them, because we’re at the outside edge of the school catchment here. I hope that means I‘ll get a seat when the bus arrives. I automatically slip into my invisibility act. I don’t know any of the other kids and I’m not about to strike up a conversation with any of them. However, one of them turns around as I arrive and I recognise her as the girl from the park. She must recognise me too: she smiles at me and sidles over. ‘Hey, kid!’ she says. ‘You’re the one I met at-’ and she nods in the direction of the park. I nod back. ‘You’re looking a lot better. So, what do you do? You know – what’s your superpower?’
It was such an odd and unexpected question that I answer her honestly. ‘I time travel,’ I say, as casually as I can manage and I’m still doing the ‘fake brave’ act, so it comes out rather well, I think.
‘No way? Kid, you’re going to be so helpful to have around! Anyone annoys us and we can send you two minutes into the future to punch them on the nose, then hop back to the present and they won’t know what hit them.’
‘Literally,’ I add, and she cracks up laughing. I’m secretly so pleased with this I imagine I must look like one of those fish, all puffed up with pride.
‘You got anyone to sit with on the bus?’ she asks. I shake my head. ‘Great! Can I claim you? Every superhero needs a sidekick, right? You can be mine. Actually, I’ve no discernible powers as yet, so maybe I can be yours,’ and she laughs again. I grin back. ‘I’m Talia, by the way.’
‘Ellie,’ I say.
I sit with Talia on the bus and she gives me a running commentary on the other kids who get on at later stops. I’m giggling so much at her assessment of most of them that I hardly notice the journey. The bus pulls up outside school and I’ve forgotten to be afraid. Talia points out which way I should go and then says, ‘See you at lunch, Time Traveller. Unless you’ve made your own friends by then, in which case, feel free to ignore me but be prepared for me to yell a greeting across the canteen, OK?’ She winks, so I know she’s either joking or she means it and it will be funny.
A teacher on the way in calls out, ‘Good morning and welcome back, Talia. Are we suitably attired this morning?’
‘All out, Sir, specially for the occasion,’ and she gestures to her nose and ears, where I remember she wore various piercings that time I saw her in the park. ‘I’m taking pride in my uniform, Sir.’
I’m trying not to snigger at her sarcasm. The teacher rolls his eyes, but there’s a hint of a smile there, I think. I can tell Talia is going to be a good person to have on my side. She’s a bit different, but she seems to manage it OK and people seem to like her, or she knows how to ignore the ones who don’t. I wonder if she can teach me to do that too. That would be a very useful superpower to have! The teacher turns his attention to me. ‘And you are?’
‘Ellie,’ I reply.
‘Well, you look like you belong here – great first day effort, Ellie,’ and he smiles, before directing me to the hall, where he says all the year sevens are to start the day.
To be honest with you, I’m still not sure where I belong, but I’ve an idea I might belong somewhere and this feels like a good start.