About wiseegg

I am a writer and an editor. I write comic and serious children's fiction and edit the arts pages of the local newspaper group The Herald. I am useless at housework but love books and the theatre and I have three children and an unfeasibly large number of cats. Oh, and one of my best friends is a dodo.

Breaking out Grandad – Ben’s Tale

 

Chapter six

“Ben! For tenth time! Will you just hurry up!”

“You exaggerate, Mother dearest. You have called me but eight times!”

“Don’t be rude!”

I wasn’t. I considered it gentle teasing but Mum was not in the mood. I was late for school. She was late for work.

“Just get on. You should be at school in five minutes shouldn’t you?”

“It’s only assembly.”

“Well, you still have to get there on time. Now go!”

She was heading for the front door and I for the back when the phone rang. I saw her hesitate and then sigh. She picked it up.

Silence. Then: “What do you mean he’s not there? Are you sure?” More silence. “He must have gone to get something, milk maybe.… “Missing? Are you sure he hasn’t put them somewhere funny? In a different cupboard maybe.”

I stood, bag in hand, watching her. She waved crossly at me and mouthed “Go on!” But I stayed where I was.

“Alright, Andrea, I’m coming over,” she said and put the phone down. As she turned to me I sensed that she was rearranging her features to become ‘calm, in control Mum’.

“What’s happened Mum? Is it Grandad?”

“It’s nothing. He’s just popped out for a paper and Andrea got in a flap. You know what she’s like.”

Yes. I did. I didn’t much like Andrea because of the way she bossed Grandad, but she didn’t get in flaps. Besides which, Grandad had a paper delivered – I used to deliver it myself when I had a paper round – and there was plenty of milk in the fridge when I was there yesterday.

“Stop standing there gawping at me and get to school!” Mum snapped. Then she came over and did something odd. She gave me a hug. We hadn’t hugged in about three years.

“I’ll come with you,” I said.

“What? To work?”

“No. To Grandad’s. That’s where you’re going. You told Andrea.”

“No. Well, I might pop in on my way to work.” Her work is in the opposite direction.

“I can miss assembly.”

She shook her head. “Hurry to school now.” She turned and almost ran out of the house and into the car. Moments later she roared off down the street. I followed on my bike.

 

Chin Woman was in a right state. She was pacing up and down while Mum interrogated her.

“I told you; I arrived and he wasn’t here,” she squawked. “Just the cupboards open and those things gone.”

“I’m sure there must be a rational explanation.” Mum started pacing too and the two of them marched up and down like lions in an enclosure.

“What things have gone?” I asked.

Both women swung round, glared at me and said in unison: “Why aren’t you at school?” See, I said Chin Woman was bossy and Mum is, well, just Mum.

“What things have gone?” I repeated, a little louder in case they hadn’t heard.

“Some random bits and pieces,” said Chin Woman. “The little saucepan which hung up by the cooker.”

“And his torch that he always kept by the backdoor so I’m worried he went out in the night,” said Mum, her voice squeaky with anxiety.

“And that nice throw is missing,” added Chin Woman. “The green and brown one from the chair by the French windows. And a tin of soup I was going to give him for lunch today.”

Not necessarily so random. “I’ll just check out the back,” I muttered.

Down the garden Grandad had obviously been doing a bit more digging. The hole was about three feet deep now and longer than it was wide. I shuddered. It reminded me of a grave. And should he be digging at his age? Supposing he had overdone it and had a heart attack, or felt ill and stumbled into the lane where he had collapsed.

‘Pull yourself together, Ben,’ I told myself. Someone would have found him by now and, if they had, then the phone call would have been different.

I peered out into the lane, looking quickly from left to right in case I saw him. Of course, there was no sign of him, either lying prone on the ground, his face ashen grey, his lips… (stop it Ben!) or ambling back from the shop with another newspaper.

I crossed into the woods.

The light was soft and was probably doing all sorts of pretty dapply things but I didn’t take any notice. I stepped forward as quietly as I could, scanning the tangle of shrubs, trunks, branches and twigs in front of me.

I could hear birdsong but no other sign of animal life. I moved on towards the clearing where we had once made camp and where we had picked the mushrooms. But the clearing lay undisturbed. Perhaps I was wrong and Grandad was actually at the shop. After all, I was usually at school at this time of day so I didn’t know his morning routine.

At the far side of the wood was a field where Gran, Grandad and I had had picnics that summer I had stayed, and I decided to walk through, just to check he wasn’t there. I wandered on, still taking care to keep quiet, until I came to a dense thicket of bushes which forced me to walk around them. On the other side was another small clearing which looked familiar. It was surrounded by the bushes on two sides and ash and oak trees on the other two. At the far end was the stump of a huge oak which must have come down years before and created the clearing. I remembered Grandad pointing out the badger set under the stump. I had been fascinated and had sat and watched the stump for what had seemed like hours in case a black and white face appeared. I didn’t stop to wonder about the badgers now though for in front of it, wrapped in a green and brown blanket, sat Grandad. He had made a little fire and had balanced a saucepan on it.

I stood still, watching. He had not yet seen me and was absorbed in the task of stirring whatever was in the saucepan. I edged nearer and heard a shriek:

“Ben! Ben! Where are you?” It was Mum.

Grandad jumped up, saw me and took a step backwards. He tripped over the log he had been sitting on and fell back with a crack against the stump.

 

He wasn’t badly hurt but we had to take him to hospital for a check-up. Mum tried to send me off to school but I convinced her that I could revise where I was so I spent several hours in Accident and Emergency, stranded on a hard plastic chair, staring at a biology text book and trying to remember the different parts of the human respiratory system, while all the time glancing over at Grandad whom lay in bed alternately dozing and then demanding what was going on. I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t know myself and I hoped someone would come up with an answer.

Mum was quick to come up with questions and a whole load of ideas about what was wrong with her father. Chin Woman, who had come with us (against my wishes) did not help when she spilled the beans about all the odd things he had been doing. I couldn’t see that they were that odd; well, not if you looked at them individually. But put things like hoarding food in his bedroom together with all the other things – including Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s gossipy opinions as we were leaving for the hospital (“I’ve been worried for months now – all that digging and telling me that walls have ears”) – and I was more bothered than I was about to say. I was pleased to see the plaster on her stuck-up nose though.

“We’ll do an assessment, Mrs Crouch,” the doctor said, trying – and failing – to reassure Mum.

“An assessment of what?” said an accusing voice. We all swung round. Grandad was standing there, glaring at us. “What am I doing here?”

“Dad, please, go and lie back down.” Mum tried to steer him but he shook her off.

“I said, what am I doing here?”

“Don’t worry Dad, it’s all OK.”

“It is not ‘OK’ as you put it. I do not know why I am here.”

“Grandad, you slipped and bashed your head.” I grasped his arm and he started to push me off and then checked himself. “I think you may have a bit of concussion,” I added.

“Oh.” He seemed to deflate. “Really. Well, I never. I don’t remember a thing about it. Perhaps that is the concussion. But my head is a bit sore.” He touched the back of his scalp then looked at his fingers. “No blood though!” He smiled brightly.

“See he’s perfectly OK,” I said, but no-one was interested in my opinion. They weren’t much interested in Grandad’s opinion either.

In fact, it all went downhill from there. They decided to keep Grandad in hospital for a night and then swung into meetings with doctors, a psychiatric team, social services, the man who put the bins out…well, why not? Everyone else seemed to have a say, everyone except me, Molly and Grandad.

“What’s wrong with Grandad?” Molly asked me that evening.

“He tripped and bumped his head.”

“Yeah, but I heard Mum tell Dad that he was cooking stuff in the woods and was doing weird things,” she said, head on one side and balancing on the side of her shoes

“They don’t know anything,” I snapped at her and then regretted it. It wasn’t her fault. I got up from the sofa and stretched.

“Where are you going?” asked Molly, her bottom lip pouting.

“To see Grandad.”

“In hospital?”

“Of course.”

“But it won’t be visiting hours.”

“So? I can’t think they will stop me seeing my old grandfather.”

“Can I come?”

“No! It’s your bedtime or something.”

“It’s not!”

“It is!” I ran out the door before she could answer and was on my bike and down the road before she could tell Mum and Dad.

 

The main entrance to the hospital was closed but I found ‘Entrance B’ and made my way to the geriatric ward on pink corridor. Nasty name ‘geriatric’, nasty pink too, like Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s face powder, too bright, too fake, too falsely cheerful.

The nurse at the desk wasn’t cheerful, falsely or otherwise. She wouldn’t let me in

“But I’ve come miles to see him,” I said, which was partly true. I had come about three miles. And it was raining again.

“I’m afraid it’s not possible. The elderly patients here are settled for the night. You will have to go and come back tomorrow during visiting hours.”

“But, please, just for one minute!” I begged at which point a voice roared “David! David! Is that you?” It was Grandad.

The nurse leapt up, banging her knee on the desk as she did so. She shot me a ‘don’t you dare say anything’ look and limped off down the ward. I followed.

She stopped by a curtained-off bed, twitched the curtain to one side and asked. “Mr Heath, are you alright?”

“No I’m bloody well not alright!”

I peered over the nurse’s shoulder and grinned at Grandad.

“David! Thank God!”

“Can I just have a moment?” I looked pleadingly at the nurse and could see her thinking. In the end she nodded.

“Be quick then.”

He was sitting up in bed, looking angry but otherwise healthy enough. I pushed some clothes aside and sat on the chair next to the bed. He grabbed my hand.

“David!” he hissed.

“I’m Ben.”

Confusion flashed across his face. “Ben,” he repeated. “Ben. Of course. Sorry old boy, but you look like David. He must be, oh…I know, your uncle, isn’t he? I must be going daft.” The grip on my hand tightened. “Is that why I’m here? Am I going daft? Have they put me away somewhere because I’m losing my mind?”

I squeezed his hand. “No, of course not Grandad. You slipped and bumped your head today and they want to check you for concussion and stuff. It’s just, er, routine.”

“How did I hit my head?”

“You tripped over in the woods behind your house.”

“Really?” He felt his head with his free hand. “Do you know, I don’t remember a thing about it.”

“Must be the concussion.”

“Excuse me.” It was the nurse again. “I said you had to be very quick. You must leave now.”

“Not yet, please.”

“Yes, you must. You can see your grandfather tomorrow.”

I started to stand up but Grandad tugged hard at my hand. “Don’t go Ben, don’t go. You must get me out of here!”

“Mr Heath, it is not visiting hours and I must insist that your grandson leaves.”

“No!” Grandad was looking frightened now. I couldn’t leave him.

“If I just sit quietly…” I suggested but she was having none of it.

“You must leave now. You are upsetting your grandfather.”

“No, you’re upsetting my grandfather. The whole lot of you are.” My voice was beginning to crack.

“What’s going on in there?” An old and grumpy voice from another bed joined in.

“Yes! Will you lot bloody shut up!” This complaint came from across the ward.

“You are upsetting everyone. Now go! Or I shall call security,” snapped the nurse.

I had to prise Grandad’s fingers off my hand. I promised him over and over that I would be back but I could still hear him shouting as I left the ward. I wept all the way home.

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Breaking out Grandad – Ben’s tale

 

Chapter five

I couldn’t concentrate throughout the rest of the day and had an evening of work ahead of me – that Fascism essay was still not finished and there was a physics paper on top of it – but there was nothing for it. I would have to call in on Grandad before I did anything.

Grandad was in the front garden raking some grass cuttings into a small pile. He looked up and smiled at me.

“Ben, old boy! How are you!”

“Hi Grandad.” I felt suddenly wobbly with relief and had to blink and cough to bring myself back to my normal cool self.

“Just got to pick up this grass and then I’m ready for a cup of tea.”

“Let me do the grass.” I thought of how frail he had looked last night and, though he seemed bright enough now, I realised how small he was too. Had he shrunk? Had I grown? Had I only just realised?

“Thank you. Just put the grass in the wheelbarrow and bring it round to the compost heap. I’ll get the kettle on.” He turned and walked towards the house, or rather he shuffled. I hadn’t noticed before how much he shuffled.

I finished the raking and pushed the barrow round to the back of the house and down the garden to the compost heap near the hedge.

“Hello! You!”

I looked up startled. Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose was staring at me over the fence, the fence she had made Grandad pay for.

“Yes! You’re Mr Heath’s grandson aren’t you?”

“Yes.” I didn’t want to talk to her so I pushed the wheelbarrow further up the garden.

“Mr Heath’s grandson!” Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose continued.

I looked up again. A growl seemed to be coming from low down in her body. I looked at her with more interest.

“My name is Ben.”

“Ben.” She paused, clearly filing away my name for later use against me. “Your grandfather has been causing trouble.”

“Oh?”

“He’s been digging that great hole in the garden.”

“So?” I drew myself up to my full height and glared down at her. “It’s his garden.” I spotted the source of the growling. Her dog was snuffling round her ankles.

“But digging it in the night and in the early hours of the morning is most unusual.”

“Was he digging last night?” I was alarmed.

“No. But he was out first thing this morning. It’s not right.” She lowered her voice and gave a thin, unconvincing smile. “I’m worried about him.”

I sincerely doubted the truth behind that last statement.

I took a deep breath. I was going to have to stand up against her. “I think he has the right to be digging in his own garden at whatever time he wants to,” I said, and bent to pick up the barrow again.

“In his pyjamas? It’s a little odd”

She was right of course but I had had enough. I grabbed the wheelbarrow handles and marched off.

Back in the house Grandad had made tea and he seemed so normal that I decided not to worry. He had suffered no apparent ill-effects from his adventures the previous night and there was nothing to show for it. Even the wet clothes that he had left on the bathroom floor had been cleared away. Chin Woman had obviously been and there were no nasty smells in the kitchen. The milk in my tea was still fresh.

There was a knock at the front door. Grandad looked startled and a look crossed his face, like the shadow of a bird in front of the sun. He got up and backed away towards the back door.

“I’ll go!” I said as enthusiastically as I could.

It was Charlotte.

“Oh hello Ben! I didn’t realise you were here.”

“That’s my bike you’re using as a table.”

“Oh, sorry, is it? I didn’t notice it.”

I had chained my bike to the drainpipe by the front door and Charlotte had balanced a substantial black shoulder bag on the saddle.

“I came to see if your grandfather was alright,” she said, looking at me with wide, oh-so-innocent eyes. “Dad and I were worried and I said I’d pop by after school.”

It sounded feasible so I nodded. “He’s fine thanks. No problems.”

“I’ve brought this round for him.” She plunged deep into the shoulder bag and extracted a huge, round biscuit tin. She held it out but I was staring at the bag which hadn’t apparently lessened in size, despite the girth of the tin. I wondered what else it held and if it was one of those Mary Poppins-style bags which could contain everything and remain the same size. Perhaps Charlotte would suddenly fly off, holding an umbrella. Perhaps she was a witch and that is how she turned up everywhere I went.

I refocused. “Thank you.” I took the tin, which was heavy, and stared at it, looking inspiration about what to say next. In the end I said the first thing that came into my stupid head. “Come in and see him.”

But he wasn’t there.

“Grandad!”

The back door was open and I looked down the garden, just in time to see a figure hurrying through the back gate and across into the woods. I set off at a run, Charlotte at my heels.

Unfortunately Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s dog was at my heels too. As soon as I was out of the gate it was in the lane, yapping and snarling, though it was so small that its snarl was more of a squeak. I decided to ignore it and plunged into the undergrowth, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t but snapped at me when I climbed onto a log for a better view. And I didn’t mean to kick it, honestly, but I lost my balance and when trying to regain it, my legs flailed out and I caught the dog a glancing blow on the muzzle. It fell back whimpering, Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose hove into view and I came crashing down on my back in a holly bush.

Charlotte didn’t make it any better when she laughed.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” she spluttered as she helped pull me up.

“My poor Peggy-Sue!” shrieked Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, seizing her dog who had started yapping again and seemed anything but injured.

“I can’t find any mushrooms!” announced Grandad.

We all swung round to see Grandad holding out his empty hands to us.

“What?” I shook my head to try to make some sense of this.

“Mushrooms. I suddenly thought there might be some and we could have mushroom omelette for our tea. You are hungry, aren’t you Ben?”

“Yes but…”

“Your grandson has just kicked Peggy-Sue!” squawked Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, holding the dog close to her heaving chest and having to move her head around to avoid its yapping, snapping mouth.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to,” snapped Grandad. “That hearthrug is always getting in where it shouldn’t.”

“How incredibly rude! She,” Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose emphasised the pronoun, “is a dog and an injured one. I shall to ring the vet and send the bill to you!”

“It was an accident Mrs Snelling,” said Charlotte. Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose glared at her but at that moment Peggy-Sue nipped her on the nose and she dropped her hurriedly and flounced of with as much dignity as a woman with a nipped nose can muster. Peggy-Sue scampered after her.

“What was I doing?” asked Grandad.

“I think you were looking for mushrooms,” I replied, pulling a holly leaf out of my backside.

“Of course. But perhaps there aren’t any. What month is it?”

“April,” said Charlotte.

“Of course, that would explain it. I was getting confused. It’s not yet mushroom season. Shame, Bess, that’s my wife, makes the best mushroom soup.”

That was true. She did. Once. I hoped it was just a slip of the tongue, a slip of the tenses. Charlotte hadn’t seemed to notice, or perhaps she didn’t know Gran was dead.

“We’ll have to have plain omelettes, or cheese. I didn’t know Ben was calling in for tea you see, though I’m delighted,” Grandad said. “Will you have some Miss er, Miss..”

“Watson. Charlotte Watson. Call me Charlotte please.”

“And I’m Reggie.” They shook hands and when Grandad smiled at her he looked just like his old self, not like the frail, bedraggled, confused man she had met the night before.

“So, will you have an omelette?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Of course not; no trouble at all.”

“In which case, I will, thank you. And I’ve brought cake.”

 

“They talked away like old mates!” I moaned to Tom later. “He invited her round again!”

Tom just laughed down the phone. “Maybe she’ll be useful. Keep an eye on him.”

“That’s not her job. That’s mine.” I was surprised to find how protective of him I felt. Tom was right, she might be useful, but I didn’t want Charlotte worming her way into my life. “Anyway, supposing her has one of his funny moments?”

“What funny moments?”asked Tom.

Ah. Of course, I hadn’t told anyone about them. I didn’t want them knowing. I didn’t even want to know myself that they happened. But they did and they weren’t just a case of him being a bit eccentric. The look on his face when Charlotte had knocked on the door had been fear. Or had he just thought ‘I must go and fetch mushrooms for tea’? And I still had no idea what he had been doing in the woods the night before, nor why he was digging a hole in the garden.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, and hoped he’d forget it, though Tom wasn’t the sort to forget.

Breaking out Grandad – Ben’s Tale

Chapter Four

 

“Are you two alright? You’re wet through!” The voice belonged to a tall, broad figure who, when he led us into the light of his warm kitchen, turned out to be a middle-aged man with a bristling moustache.

“I was just trying to get the cat in and I heard something going on in the woods,” he told us. “I thought maybe it was Za-Za – that’s the cat – having an altercation with a fox, or that dog that lives up the road. It wouldn’t be the first time. And I found you two.” He turned and called through the doorway: “Lottie! Can you come and give me a hand here?”

“Just a minute!” The voice sounded worryingly familiar, worries that were confirmed when a red-haired girl stuck her head round the door and squeaked “Ben! What are you doing here?” Yes, it was Charlotte. Oh, hooray! Embarrassing or what!

I made up some story about looking for one of Grandad’s chickens that had got loose and might be in the woods, while I dried my hair with the towel Charlotte found for me. She kept staring at me. Perhaps she was hoping that I’d strip off completely and towel myself down. Nah, I’m not the sort of person anyone hopes that about.

Then Charlotte’s Dad looked at Grandad who was shivering and shaking like his teeth would fall out and said: “Mr Heath, isn’t it? I’m Mark Watson. You’re going to be ill if we don’t get you out of those wet clothes and into a hot bath straightaway. Lottie, go and run a bath and I’ll find you some of my spare clothes.”

“No!” Grandad’s voice was so loud it made me jump. “Leave me alone!”

“Seriously Mr Heath, you’ll catch pneumonia or something.” He made towards Grandad who shrunk back, fear in his eyes.

“Get off me!”

I stepped forward between the two men. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew that I had to take Grandad’s side, even though Mr Watson was right.

“It’s alright Grandad,” I said. “It’s alright.” I felt like I was talking to a frightened child. “We’ll go home and you can get warm there.” I turned to Mr Watson and smiled awkwardly.

“Tell you what,” Mr Watson blustered. “I’ll give you both a lift home. It’s still pouring with rain.” He gave a nervous laugh.

“Thanks Mr Watson.”

“Mark,” he replied.

Charlotte smiled.

‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘he’ll be saying ‘call me Dad’ soon’.

 

Back at his home, I had just persuaded Grandad to have a quick bath when my phone rang. The name ‘Mum’ came up on the screen.

“Ben, where are you?” She sounded either annoyed or anxious, probably both. I sighed. When would she work out that I was almost 16?

For a moment I couldn’t work out what to say. What had I said when I left? The events of the last hour or so had confused me.

“I dropped in to see Grandad,” I told her.

“Oh.” Her voice softened. “Is he alright?” The anxiety returned then, but at least I was off the hook.

“Yes. Fine.”

“Can I have a word?”

Awkward.

“He’s just gone in the bathroom.”

“So what have you been talking about?”

Maybe it was my imagination but I thought she might be suspicious.

“History. I’ve got a difficult essay to write about the years leading up to the war. I thought he might be able to help.”

“Oh. I thought you went to Tom’s. He lives miles away from Grandad.”

“It’s not miles and I went to Tom’s too.” This was irritating. Why didn’t I just tell her the truth? Because she would start a spiral of worry and who knew where that would lead.

“Are you coming home? Do you want a lift? The rain’s awful?” She rattled on in this vein for a while as I began to shiver. I cut her off with the promise that I’d be home soon and went to check that Grandad was alright.

Was I right to say nothing? I hadn’t quite worked out what had gone on in the woods, or maybe I had, but I didn’t want to admit to it. If I admitted that he seemed to be running from something, that he seemed to be re-enacting our old war games but taking them seriously, then I would have to tell someone and that would put a chain of events in motion that would change everything. And I wanted to keep Grandad as he was.

Charlotte, of course, said something the next day.

“Are you OK? Is your Grandad OK? Did you get the chicken back?”

“What is she on about?” asked Tom. I was scrabbling in my bag for a text book at the time and didn’t reply. I was trying to work out what to say.

“What are you on about?” Tom asked Charlotte.

“Oh it’s just that Ben was in the woods and…”

“Found it!” I announced, waving the book in the air and hitting Tom in the face. “Sorry Tom! I’ve got to go.” I loped off leaving Tom and Charlotte staring at me. Maybe Charlotte was just being kind but I didn’t want her interfering. I didn’t want anyone else involved.

 

Breaking Out Grandad – Ben’s tale

Chapter three

It settled down after that. Chin Woman returned – she’d been ill apparently – Grandad answered the phone when it rang and obliged Mum by being in when she called round. I didn’t see why he shouldn’t go out when he wanted, but what did I know? Nothing that Mum wanted to hear on the subject anyway. Parents never seem to want to talk to their children about important things and maybe if they did there would be fewer problems. It would have helped in Grandad’s case.

Meanwhile, I got on with life at school and the ever-increasing piles of revision papers.

There was also the problem of the new girl Charlotte Watson who’d joined us from another school right as exams were about to begin and seemed to have latched on to me. She was everywhere I went or so it seemed. She was in my science and maths sets and she invariably managed to find a spare seat near me, even when I could have sworn (and often did) that there wasn’t one. If she had been Amanda Simpson I wouldn’t have minded though I might not have dared talk to her. She’s in the popular league.

“Charlotte’s alright,” said Tom when I moaned to him about it. “Anyway, someone said she’s got a boyfriend at Ashbourne.” Ashbourne is a sixth form college in the next town, full of posh boys and gals. Rumour has it that they ride their horses to college or have the chauffeur drop them off. No-one from Glorney Mead could ever dream of going there. We’d all be way out of place.

“They’re all old at Ashbourne. Maybe she wants a younger one at Glorney. Keep her options open,” I suggested. “Come on, move!” I had just spotted Charlotte walking determinedly towards us. We got up from the bench we were lounging on but Tom makes lounging into an art form so it took him a while and we weren’t fast enough.

“Hi Ben! Hi, er, Tim.”

“Tom.”

“Sorry, yes.” She glanced at him then turned back to me. “Did you understand that experiment in Chemistry?” Her head was cocked slightly to one side, her eyes were big. She looked a bit like Bonzo Dog. I hoped her digestive system works better than his does.

“Yeah. Maybe. Going to read my notes.”

Tom snorted. “You didn’t even take notes!”

“So, er, your notes.” I glared at him.

“You can borrow mine,” said Charlotte. I glanced at her, surprised, more so when she blushed.

“I mean,” she added, now looking down at the grey vinyl of the school corridor floor. “If that is any use.”

“Thanks, s’okay though.” I had to put her off.

She rallied. “Well, see you some time.” She smiled and set off down the corridor. Then she turned. “Or I might bump into you outside. I think you visit someone in my road.”

“Er?” It wasn’t articulate but I was bothered.

“Willow Way.”

“Oh, er, yeah, my Grandad.” Next thing she’d be calling on him.

“See you then.” She waved.

“See what I mean?” I growled. “Tim.”

Tom snorted.

That was before the incident in the woods.

 

It was raining when I called round on Grandad early that evening. I’d promised Mum I’d take in some fresh milk as, on the days when Chin Woman isn’t there, milk tends to get left out. I got there and he wasn’t in. Only he must have been around as, when I went round the back to see if he was in the garden, I found the backdoor open and the radio on in the kitchen, blaring out a comedy programme. I could hear riotous laughing

“Grandad! Grandad!” I called. Then “Reggie!” in case he wasn’t in a grandfatherly mood but would respond to his own name.

No reply. I went in and wandered from room to room. The cupboard under the stairs, where we had hidden in the storm, was open and he’d left a tap running in the bathroom but otherwise everything was normal. The milk was even in the fridge. I guessed he had just gone out for a bit and had forgotten to shut the backdoor. I delivered the milk to the appropriate spot in the fridge and left.

“Grandad alright?” asked Mum as I shook the rain off me in the hall. It was tipping down now and I hoped Grandad was snug in a pub or back in his kitchen listening to the radio. He said he kept it on for company if he felt lonely. I imagined him in the pub with a few other old men like him, chewing over things, having a bit of a moan about how young people didn’t know how lucky they were these days. Not that Grandad was like that. He always supported me.

“Well?” Mum sounded impatient. “Is he alright?”

“Who? Oh, Grandad. Yeah. Fine.” I shrugged. There didn’t seem any point in worrying her and sending her scuttling round the pubs looking for him, disturbing him when he’d only just started another pint.

But later that evening, when I was bored writing about the rise of Fascism in 20th century Europe, and the rain was still drumming on the window, I started to worry. Supposing he wasn’t alright.

“Where are you off to?” Dad spotted me as I tried to sneak through the house unseen. Stupid open-plan 1970s design. Not only can’t you shut off the sound of the pointless talent shows that Molly watches and the cookery competitions that are Mum’s obsession, you can’t even sneeze without someone hearing you.

“Left some work at Tom’s,” I said, fumbling with the zip on my jacket. “I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll drive you. It’s an awful night.”

“No.” I said it too quickly. “Thanks though. I am so cramped up doing this essay, my brain and body need a bit of exercise.”

He looked at me suspiciously. I don’t really do exercise. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Anyway, you’re always telling me that a bit of rain never hurt anyone. Bye!” I was out the front door before Dad could think of a suitable response.

Grandad’s house was dark when I cycled up. Perhaps he was having an early night after too many pints in the pub. I knocked quietly on the front door, not wanting to disturb him but not wanting to go away without being sure he was OK.

There was no reply so I made my way round the back and – I had secretly been fearing this all along – I could hear the radio (music this time) and see the backdoor was still open.

I felt sick. Where had he gone? Was he hiding in the house like in the thunder storm, playing a war game, and I hadn’t seen him earlier? Had he collapsed and I’d missed him? Had he gone out and something had happened to him?

“Grandad!” I stepped into the kitchen and groped around for the light switch. It wasn’t fully dark outside yet, but the light made me feel a little better and I switched on every light I could find as I tiptoed from room to room, expecting at any moment to find him lying there, his body twisted, his face… Get a grip! I My imagination was conjuring up all sorts of terrible images.

The house was empty. I didn’t know what to do next. I could have tried Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose and asked if she’d seen him but she was usually so hostile it would probably lead to trouble. His other neighbours had only just moved in. “Not sure who they are,” Grandad had said. “I called round with a pie but they were out.”

I found a torch by the back door and went down the garden. Perhaps he had been digging again and fallen in the hole. In which case he might be lying there, his body… Stop it!

But he wasn’t. He had obviously been digging recently as the hole was quite big now, and filling up with water from the relentless rain, but there was no Grandad. The back gate was open though. It led out into a lane, on the other side of which were the woods. Grandad and I had adventures in the woods when I was younger, hiding from the enemy, building makeshift camps. One summer when Nana, Dad’s mother, was ill, Mum and Dad went to visit her for a couple of weeks. Molly went with them as she was considered too young to be away from them, and I stayed with Gran and Grandad. That was Gran’s last summer and I remember her reading to me, and cooking, but mostly I remember getting wet and muddy in the woods with Grandad, pretending we were on the trail of a spy. Gran told us both off for the mess we brought back in with us, but it was great.

Something clicked in my brain. I wiped the rain out of my eyes and stepped forward across the lane into the woods.

The trees should have given me some shelter but the rain was so hard the leaves couldn’t hold it, or when they did, they collected a pool then dumped it on me as I walked below. I ducked branches as well as I could, but twigs still hit me in the face and I couldn’t see the roots and other obstacles under my feet. Once I slipped and went crashing to the ground. I lay there winded for a moment and sensed something on the edge of my hearing. Something was moving ahead of me. I scrambled to my feet and called “Grandad.” The movement stopped. Then it started again, somewhere slightly to my right and further into the woods.

“Grandad!” Stop. Start. “Reggie!” This time the movement stopped for longer. I crept forward, shining my torch on the ground, watching for twigs that might snap and give the game away. Grandad had taught me that when we’d played our games that summer.

The pounding of the rain helped hide my approach too. I guessed he was somewhere near the mound where we had made camp, a mound left there when the woods were used for army manoeuvres years back.

Something darted across my path and I jumped and shone my torch after it. The beam caught the hindquarters of a small deer racing for shelter, perhaps disturbed by the intruders.

I stepped forward again and this time forgot to look at the ground. I stumbled into a hole and fell to the side, thudding my shoulder into a tree. Something else moved ahead and this time my torch caught a figure running away from me zigzagging among the trees. It was him, I was sure.

I ran then too, not caring about the noise I was making, not caring about the branches that whipped at me nor the fact that the rain had now reached my underpants. I was sure I could outrun him. But the wood was dark and Grandad was wily, moving this way and that, diving into thick bushes, so that I lost sight of him. I stopped and listened but all I could hear was the pelting rain and my own panting.

“Grandad! Grandad! It’s me! Ben! Where are you?” My voice was high with panic now. Nothing. Think Ben, think! I remembered the games in the woods, the way we had sneaked around in silence – or as much silence as a nine-year-old could muster – the oranges we had thrown as ‘hand grenades’ (Gran told us off about that too), the time I couldn’t find him and he was just behind me. I’d panicked then, too, and he’d taught me a signal to use if I ever got lost again. A bird cry. I could scarcely remember it.

I thought hard and cupped my hands around my mouth. Then I called “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”

Nothing. And then, tentatively, like a shy echo, a “Teewhooo!” sounded from my left.

I called again: “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”

This time the reply was bolder. “Teewhooo! Teewhooo!”

I made my way towards the sound, stopping to call every now and then. Grandad’s replies were stronger now.

I pushed my way through a thick, prickly bush and stumbled out into a small clearing. I called again. “Teewhooo!”

The reply was loud, just feet away.

I chanced it. “Grandad? It’s me, Ben.” I shone my torch low to where I thought he was, afraid of startling him and, like a nervous fawn, he appeared from behind a tree.

“Grandad!”

“Ben! Are you alright? They haven’t got you.”

“Who?”

“The…the…” His voice wavered. “I don’t know. I think I must be in a muddle.”

I approached gently and he reached out his hand towards me. “Ben! You’re soaked!”

“And you!” I stepped forward and hugged him, feeling his frail frame in my arms. I wanted to weep.

Then the world was lit up by a powerful beam and a new voice demanded “What’s going on?”

 

Breaking out Grandad – Ben’s tale

Chapter two

Mum clucked when I mentioned it. I shouldn’t have said anything about Grandad but I guess I must have been worrying about him and it just slipped out.

“That doesn’t sound good. And how was the place looking? Had Andrea been round? I must go and see him. I’m really not sure he can manage at home anymore, especially after these night-time digging episodes.” She glanced at the clock and then at the table in front of her. She had been making pastry and it wasn’t going well. Mum thinks she should cook from scratch each day and she had the recipe book open on Chicken and Leek Pie. It would be a good hour or so before we had it.

I headed for the fridge for something to keep me going.

“I haven’t got time to go round this evening. Or maybe if I put this in the oven and you kept an eye on it, Ben, though I’ve got to do vegetables too.” She pushed her glasses back onto her nose and left a white smudge of flour on one lens. Her attempts at wiping it off made it worse. It would be a long, long time until we ate.

“I’ve got homework,” I said, using an excuse that Mum would approve of and hoping she wouldn’t remember it was Friday and I never did homework on Fridays. “You’d better stay.” Mum didn’t have time to do half the things she tried to do – like cooking for instance – but she could never see it. “I’m sure he’s alright. He seemed the same as ever,” I added, seeing her face crease with anxiety.

Mum sighed and went back to her pastry.

“I’ll have him over for lunch tomorrow,” she said. “I could invite Auntie Janice too.”

My heart sank. We were going to have One Of Those Meals….

Saturday is a day for a lie-in, a day to relax. My brain and body need it. I’m 15, almost 16, and there’s a book that explains about how our brains change when we’re teenagers and why someone of my age needs rest and – a book I gave to Mum and Dad but they haven’t really taken it in. Mum thinks Saturday is Family Day, when we can all do something together like go for a long walk, have a meal. “It’s our only chance to spend time together,” she sighed when Molly and I complained, or I complained and Molly just stood in the background and looked awkward. She’s only 11.

“Sundays are so busy,” added Mum. She and Dad are crazy church-goers, always taking old ladies here and there, sitting on committees, serving lunches, running youth groups. They had a go at getting me and Molly involved. Molly’s young enough to be sucked into it all but I haven’t been for years. School work can be a good excuse when you don’t want to hurt feelings.

And on some Saturdays she likes to make sure family means not just us but aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as Grandad. She’s never worked out that we don’t like all branches of the family.

 

Saturday dawned. OK, I didn’t see the dawn and I did my best not to see any of the morning but Mum made sure I couldn’t sleep by sending Bonzo Dog in. Bonzo is half-dog, half-tornado with a flatulence problem that could strip wallpaper. So if his licks and nuzzles don’t get you up, his smell will. So 10am and I was awake and 11am I was peeling potatoes.

“Glad to see you’re doing a bit of spud bashing,” said Dad on his way through with a box of cheap red wine. Dad wasn’t in the army but sometimes tries to suggest he was.

Janice is Mum’s sister. She got divorced a year or so back and is bringing up Ellie and Jack on her own. They’re ten-year-old twins. Ellie’s alright but Jack’s a little… wait, I’ve got to think of a polite way of saying it… pain. That’ll do. He’s really competitive and has to win at everything. I try not to let him, though that may be lowering myself to his level.

Anyway Janice – or Auntie Janice as Mum still thinks we should call her – had jumped at the opportunity to come round and dilute the twins, even if it meant having to go out of her way and pick up Grandad.

Mum was preparing steak and kidney pudding. “It’s your Grandad’s favourite,” she told me as I raised an eyebrow at the elaborate preparations. “Granny used to make it – proper suet pastry and boiled in a basin.”

“But doesn’t that take like three hours or something?” I remembered my Gran putting it on to boil before we had squash and biscuits at 10 o’clock when we stayed with her and Grandad.

“No, I don’t think so.” Mum looked again at the recipe book. “I think it will be ready in time. We’re having a starter after all.”

It would be a late lunch.

In fact, it was a good thing that the pudding wasn’t ready until three, what with the trouble over Grandad. Janice and the twins went to pick him up and he wasn’t there, even though Mum and Janice had both spoken to him just half-an-hour or so before. Maybe with all the fuss they were making he had decided to go to ground for a while.

“Where can he be?” Mum was pacing up and down, her heels clicking on the kitchen floor as she intermittently checked the lunch, her watch and the drive outside. “Perhaps he’s wandered off.”

“He’s probably just nipped out to the shop and got talking,” said Dad, putting his arm around her. She shook him off then turned and buried her face in his shoulder. When she raised her eyes and noticed me watching them she stood back and forced a smile across her face.

“Yes, you’re right Alan. He’s probably lost track of time. Ben, can you get those little green dishes out for the melon?”

The clock in the dining room ticked on, counting out the seconds while we waited. I wasn’t worried, not really, or I wouldn’t have been if Mum hadn’t gone on about it, or if she’d just been cross about having to keep food warm.

At twenty-past-two I answered the phone while Mum circled me like a bluebottle. It was Jack on Janice’s mobile.

“We have located the alien life force. I repeat, we have located the …”

“Alright Jack, enough. You’ve got Grandad?”

“Is he OK?” squeaked Mum hopping on her heels.

I glared at her.

“Our spaceship will be landing at approximately…Mum, what’s the time?”

I could just hear Janice’s reply: “Of for goodness sake Jack, tell them we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“But what time will that be? In 24 hour clock?”

“Jack…”

I put the phone down and turned to Mum.

“They’ll be here in 10 minutes.”

 

The steak and kidney pudding was good, I’ll give Mum credit for that. I was even allowed a glass of wine though the rations on alcohol are strict in this house. I found Grandad in the kitchen, empty glass in hand, searching for a bottle. He winked at me.

“It’s in a box,” I whispered.

“A box? Why would anyone want to keep wine in a box? It’d soak through.”

“I think there’s probably a plastic bag or something inside.” I dragged the wine box out from under the kitchen table where Dad had hidden it.

“Worse and worse. Still, needs must old boy. Have one yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

I found an empty glass, filled up his and mine and we clinked.

“Cheers!”

We drank in appreciative silence. The hatch between kitchen and dining room was closed but the walls are thin in our house – it’s some sort of mass-produced box, not like Grandad’s Victorian one – and I could hear the others talking.

“Molly, Ellie and Jack, you may get down. I’ll call you to help with the washing up shortly,” said Mum.  I heard them scuttling across the hall and up the stairs and then the remaining adults started.

“I’m getting really worried about Dad,” said Mum.

“I know.” This was Janice.

“Where do you really think he was?” My own dad was speaking with his mouth full, probably still on the cheese and biscuits.

“I’ve no idea,” replied Janice. “He just turned up round the front of the house from the back garden and looked confused when he saw us. His shoes were filthy though, like he’d been tramping through mud. I made him change them.”

“But he’s been fine since he’s been here. Chatting away.” Dad again.

“Yes, but he asked me where Bess was,” said Mum.

“Who?” It sounded like Dad had taken another bite of biscuit.

“Bess. Our mother.”

“But she’s been dead for…oh.” Dad trailed off. “That’s not good.”

“No. It’s all so worrying.”

In the kitchen Grandad drained his glass and grinned at me.

“The good thing about being old,” he said, “is that when you go out to lunch, no-one expects you to do the washing up. I think I’ll just go and have a little sit down.”

See! There was nothing wrong with him. My parents and Janice were just fussing.

 

Breaking Out Grandad – Ben’s tale, chapter one

I blame Mum; it was her fault. Sort of. She was the one who chose to put him in that place. She and my aunt and uncle. I realise they thought they had to, though they never expected things to turn out the way they did. And I’m kind of glad we did what we did.

“We must do something about Dad,” Mum said at the beginning of it all. She’d had yet another phone call in the night and she and my own dad had rushed out, coats over pyjamas, hair all over the place, to sort out Grandad who was digging in his garden at three in the morning.

“Why can’t he be left to dig?” I asked when I heard.

“You can’t have someone his age out in the middle of the night, getting cold and damp,” she said. “Besides, he woke up the neighbours.”

“Yes, and we can’t have precious Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose’s beauty sleep disturbed can we?” I said, though some of my words were a bit ruder than that which made Mum angry and forget the real point. Which was, in my opinion, that Grandad was quite OK, just a bit eccentric, and his neighbour (real name Mrs Snelling, but she always stuck her nose up into the air, so Grandad and I had always called her Mrs Stuck-Up-Nose, much to Mum’s annoyance) was a nasty old bag who wanted him out of there.

Mrs Snelling and Grandad had clashed when her dog had dug up and eaten his turnips and then been very sick and she’d blamed him. They’d also clashed over who owned the fence that was falling down (OK, it was Grandad’s but he didn’t have any money and she did so she could have paid for it) and they’d clashed over Henry the cockerel when Grandad had started keeping chickens. Cockerels are meant to make noise and he was only trying to defend the hens from her dog.

Mrs Snelling shares some of the blame, though she sometimes does the right thing. Only sometimes.

***

I decided to cycle round to see Grandad after school. There was a storm threatening, and the odd rumble of thunder in the distance.

I couldn’t find Grandad at first. He didn’t answer the door but that wasn’t anything too unusual. I let myself in with the spare key he kept in the old watering can. Mum had gone on at him when he had one under a stone so he had obliged her by removing it and putting it in the can instead, only she thought he’d put it sensibly in his kitchen drawer (“What use would that be if I’m locked out?” asked Grandad).

“Grandad. Are you in?” I called.

Silence.

I walked down the hall looking into the rooms. Mum was always moaning about it being a mess and even I could see she was right, though if Grandad was happy, so what? But there were old plates and cups scattered around and not the best smell coming from the kitchen. Kind of burnt and rotten at the same time. A woman called Andrea usually came in to help him some days but I guess she hadn’t been for a day or two.

“Anyone home?” I called.

“Quick! Quick! Get under here! You’ll be safe!” came an echoey voice from under the stairs.

The door to the under-stairs cupboard was open a crack and I opened it further. Grandad was huddled at the far end, a tin bucket over his head.

I crawled in.

“What are you doing?” I asked, making myself as comfortable as is possible with a vacuum cleaner for a seat.

“Sheltering.” His voice echoed in the bucket. “I haven’t finished the Anderson Shelter yet, but this may protect us if a bomb falls.”

“Cool.” I hadn’t played war games since I was a little kid but why not? Grandad had always been up for them then. He had said it helped him make the memories better. I’d thought that was to make me feel that I was being useful and not ‘bothering Grandad’ as Mum used to say, but she also told me that he’d had a bad time in the war, got shot down and was on the run for months, so maybe it was a kind of therapy. So, until I was about 11 and went to Glorney Mead – that’s my secondary school – we’d spent our time flying Spitfires, creeping through enemy territory and making daring escapes from prisoner-of-war camps. Then I’d been too grown-up to play but I guess he still had the bad memories. I felt guilty. Perhaps we should have carried on playing.

A crash of thunder boomed overhead and I heard the spit-splatter of rain on the hall window.

“Some storm,” I said, but Grandad was more into the game than I was. He really looked quite scared.

“It’s OK, it’s just the thunder,” I told him, but he pulled the bucket down over his head. He was actually trembling.

I reached over and squeezed his arm. Slowly his hand uncurled from gripping the side of the bucket and he unfolded his arm and took my hand. He held it tight and we sat there in silence, listening to the rain. With every clap of thunder he gripped me tighter still until my hand hurt and I wished he would stop.

I don’t know how long we sat there until the storm passed.

“I’m getting a bit stiff,” I said, shifting on my bottom. My legs had seized up and I really wanted to move.

“We have to wait ’til the all-clear sounds.” He peered out from under his bucket.

“It did, just now,” I told him.

“Are you sure? I never heard it.”

“You were under the bucket. I had my head by the door.”

“Thank God for that.”

We crawled out from under the stairs and I looked at him. He was a bit pale and he shook and shuffled along towards the kitchen. He kept looking up.

“We don’t seem to have sustained any damage,” he said at last.

“Want a cup of tea?” I asked, deciding it was best to get back to normality.

“Thank you David,” he said.

“It’s Ben.” I was getting a bit worried now. David was my uncle, Mum’s brother, Grandad’s son.

“Ben. Of course.” Grandad’s eyes cleared. “How are you my boy? How’s school.”

“Ok. Good. Boring.” I picked up the washing up bowl and discovered the source of the bad smell. Some charred stew lay in the bottom of the sink. I recognised it as the dinner Mum had brought round on Monday. It was Friday now. No wonder it smelled.

“Hasn’t Andrea been round?” I asked.

“Who’s that?” he asked, picking up a couple of mugs off the table.

“Andrea. You know. Chin Woman.”

We both grinned. Andrea had the most enormous chin, and since she was also a bit frightening – she ordered everyone around – Grandad and I would call her Chin Woman to make us feel better. We did that a fair bit.

“Do you know, I have no idea. I think there may have been some message about her being ill or something. Biscuits. You must have a biscuit.”

We had tea and biscuits and I did a bit of clearing up. I didn’t want Mum coming round later and making more of a fuss about mess and him not managing. He asked me a few times about school and then I realised it was time to get going.

Grandad came to the door to wave me off. As I climbed onto my bike he said “Better get there before it’s dark. I don’t want you cycling in the black out.”

I turned to see if he was smiling but, no, he looked deadly serious.

The Last Song – chapter eight

Katarina’s father called again. “Come down! There is someone to see you.”

Katarina turned to her mother. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she whispered.

“No, of course not. Why would you have done?” replied her mother, but her eyes were wide. “What have we come to?” she murmured and squeezed Katarina’s hand.

They ventured down the stairs together and as they turned the corner onto the half-landing that over-looked the hall, they saw a teenage boy standing awkwardly next to the grandfather clock. It was Seamus.

* * *

Seamus looked surprised at the greeting he received from both mother and daughter. Mr Rohinton raised an eyebrow, too, at their wide smiles and the way Katarina skipped down the stairs.

“Mother, Father, this is Seamus McIntyre! He’s from school. Seamus, meet my parents.”

There was much shaking of hands and welcoming until suddenly the room fell silent and no-one knew quite what to say or do.

Seamus recovered first. “I hope you don’t mind my calling round like this but I was wondering about some homework. I’m really stuck you see. Mrs Rohinton,” he smiled across at her. Though he was only a couple of years older than Katarina he was almost as tall as her father. “Katarina tells me that you are rather an expert at languages. And I’m not you see and I’m falling behind. And I came to see if maybe you would be kind enough to give me some tutoring. I could … well, my father could, pay.”

“Oh, of course. That wouldn’t be necessary. I’m sure I could help you out a little here and there.” Mrs Rohinton smiled warmly at him.

“Seamus said he’d help me with my maths,” Katarina broke in.

“Well that would be kind, Seamus, though my husband does what he can to help.”

To her own surprise, Katarina found her heart sinking a touch. “But sometimes it’s not convenient and Seamus has done the syllabus…” She blushed slightly. “Can I make you a cup of tea?” she blustered.

“Er, thank you,” he replied.

Katarina clattered mugs in the kitchen half-listening to her mother discussing when Seamus could come round for tutoring. They seemed to be agreeing on the following Monday after school. She smiled and reached for the milk jug. As she did so she caught a glimpse of something grey outside the window. It was Ditto balanced on the windowsill looking in. He opened his mouth and Katarina could hear a faint ‘miaow’. He rubbed his face against the glass and mewed again. She reached over, raised the catch on the window and opened it.

The cat strolled in, leaped elegantly over the kitchen sink and onto the floor. He rubbed round her legs then padded across to the door. Katarina followed, tea tray in hand and opened the door. The cat marched into the hall.

“Ditto! What are you doing here?” Her mother’s voice was sharp. The cat was rubbing around Seamus’s legs.

“Ditto?” asked Seamus leaning down to stroke the cat behind his ears.

“The cat. He lived next door.”

“With Mrs Malcolm?” asked Seamus.

Mrs Rohinton looked surprised. “Yes.”

“That was bad, wasn’t it?” Seamus continued.

There was silence.

“What she did, I mean” he added.

Katarina stared at him. He was looking coolly at her mother, not, apparently, in the least flustered by the fact that he might have been misunderstood.

“Yes, yes, terrible,” her father broke in shifting awkwardly in his carpet slippers. He was dressed for a restful weekend but was always full of nervous energy, especially in the presence of strangers. “Come and sit down and have some tea. Come through…what’s that cat doing?”

Ditto was heading up the stairs. At the half-landing he paused, turned and looked at them and mewed.

“Come back! Naughty cat!” called her mother.

Ditto mewed again and slipped off round the corner of the stairs.

“I’ll get him!” Katarina set off at a run.

“Can I help?” asked Seamus and came after her, the cat dancing ahead, just out of reach. Ditto gave a delicate leap onto a wooden plant stand on the landing, batted a green tendril hanging down from the plant and jumped off.

“Here Ditto!” Katerina knelt down and reached her hand out towards him but the cat put his head to one side as if thinking, mewed once then turned and walked into Katarina’s bedroom, tail held high. The next moment his tail was disappearing under the bed.

“No!” squeaked Katarina and scrabbled after him, reaching for him as he lay down against the wall, not far from her shell.

“Let me help.” Seamus was down on his knees beside her, his hands sliding under the bed too.

“No!” This time the word came out as a yelp. “I mean, let’s leave him. He seems happy.” Sure enough Ditto was purring. “I’ll get him out later.”

She wriggled back out from under the bed and found her face close to Seamus’s. He gazed at her for a moment before rocking back on his heels and seeming to sniff the air. He gave a half-smile, stood up and offered her his hand as she got to her own feet. But she backed away, pulled herself up and brushed down her skirt. It was a short brown skirt and it suddenly seemed childish.

“Sure,” said Seamus, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Leave Ditto. He’s happy there. And I should go down and drink my tea and talk to your parents.”