The Last Song – chapter two

Ditto danced around Katarina’s legs all the way along the side of the house until they were in the front garden. Katarina crouched in the shelter of a small tree and stared into the open front door. The men had left it open, perhaps as a warning to anyone else who dared do anything wrong – whatever that wrong was – a reminder of ‘look what will happen if you break the law’.

Even in the pale moonlight she could see that the house had been ransacked. Ditto streaked ahead of her and, crouching close against the wall, she slipped in after him. Inside, her feet crunched on broken crockery and slid on torn books. The furniture was overturned and house plants had been tossed aside as if a ferocious wind had howled through. But what were the men searching for? What would this harmless old lady have that they would see as a threat? She stumbled her way to a clearer patch near the hearth while Ditto wound around her legs, sniffing up at the plate of chicken she held close to her.

“Poor puss,” she whispered, putting the plate down and kneeling beside him. “What are we going to do?” The moonlight caught his sharp teeth as he bit hard into the chicken. He might survive by hunting, but perhaps her parents would let her take him in.

The plate empty, Ditto looked up at her. Then he moved his head forward and rubbed it against the edge of an upturned basket.

“Have you got an itch? Does this feel nice?” she asked him, reaching over and scratching the spot on his head where he had been rubbing.

Mrs Malcolm had kept a collection of pretty stones, bits of driftwood and dried flowers in the basket and these had now tumbled out onto the hearth rug, probably, she thought, kicked over in anger. She began to scoop them up and place them back in the basket. She moved a bunch of dried flowers and her hand grazed a large shell, probably once the home of a sea creature like the ones she had seen in books. She picked it up. It was cold and yet, as she held it, she sensed a faint vibration through her, a hum that grew stronger as it travelled up her arm and into the rest of her body, spreading through her veins, warming her.

Her eyes widened and she smiled, despite the awfulness of the devastation around her, despite the fear that beat inside her. She was tempted to switch on the light so that she could see this shell more clearly, but there could be someone watching the house. She stood up and started towards the window in the hope that the moonlight might be bright enough to see the shell. Then Ditto hissed. His body stiffened, he bent his back legs and turned and leaped away through the debris.

From somewhere outside Katarina heard voices. For a moment she was too scared to move, but she shook herself, seized the plate and, holding the shell close, ran to the door. The voices were somewhere in the front garden, getting louder, so she dashed down the hallway and into the kitchen, hoping to make it to the back door in time. But the top bolt on the back door scraped loudly when she pulled on it and she was sure she would be heard and that they would come after her.

She glanced around. The layout was the same as her house and she turned to the larder, darting inside and squeezing herself under a low shelf, thankful for once that she was still small and had not grown the way many of her classmates had. She hugged the shell. It comforted her, sending warm ripples through her body, making her feel that all was not lost – yet.

The larder door did not close properly and Katarina began to make out what the voices were saying. She did not understand what they meant. A light went on somewhere in the house, probably in the front room, and through the crack of the open door she saw the shadows of two men cast on the hall wall. The men were grumbling together. “I’m sure there’s something here,” said one, his voice sharp like a spike.

“Our men found nothing and you can see they looked!” The other was sullen.

“Your men know nothing. I’ve said before that you need more experts on the team. People who can hear what should not be heard.”

“Can you?”

“Sometimes.” There was a pause. “There’s something here but I don’t know where. I think we should clear the house, take away some more of the old lady’s things. ”

“What? Now?” The tone was even more sullen.

“No. I’ll get the ministry to send someone in; you get your men to board up the house.”

Katarina listened as the men turned and crunched their way back through the room and out to the front door. She waited until she was convinced that they had gone, then rolled out from under the shelf and ran to the back door. The bolts screeched but she pulled them anyway and flung open the door.

The cold air slapped her in the face and took away her breath.

“What’s that?” shouted a voice, the sullen man. She backed into the doorway as a torch flashed up the path.

“There’s someone here!” he shouted again and his footsteps thudded on the beaten earth path.

Katarina backed further into the back lobby of Mrs Malcolm’s house, her heart beating so loudly she was sure it could be heard.

“Miaow!” A long howl made her almost cry out and she heard the ‘thwack’ and yelp of a man hitting the ground.

“It’s just a cat, you fool,” sneered the spikey man.

“I heard something, I…ow!” The man was obviously struggling back to his feet again.

“Is this what I have to deal with,” asked the other, a nasty laugh in his voice.

In the lobby Katarina allowed herself a small smile. She listened again. The footsteps, one of them dragging, began to move away. She waited. Ten, 15 minutes passed and she heard no more. She crept forward and peered out. Nobody. She ran, not looking back, down the path and in through her own backdoor. She did not pause until she was safe in her own bed.

Before she fell asleep she dropped the shell down the side of the bed, close to the wall.

 

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The Last Song – chapter one

Katarina’s mother pulled the shutters tight and turned away from the window.

“There is nothing for you to see out there,” she said. “Go to sleep now.” She creased her lips up into a smile and crossed the room to where Katarina sat hunched tight on the bed. “Sleep darling.” She lent over and placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, the lightest of touches

“I can’t. I won’t be able to.” Katarina shuddered. “Mrs Malcolm…What do you think will…”

“Shh!” Her mother cut her off. “Just lie down and sleep.”

“Stay with me,” Katarina begged.

“Just for a while, but you must sleep.”

“Do you remember when I was little you used to sing to me? It was something about angels and their arms.”

“Shh!” Her mother glanced towards the window and shook her head. “I can’t, I mean it’s better this way.” She sat down on the edge of her bed and reached forward as if to stroke Katarina’s forehead, then pulled her hand back and instead seized Katarina’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

Katarina flinched but squeezed it in return. “But what do you mean? Why did they take her?” she asked. The images of Mrs Malcolm being bustled out of her house by four uniformed men were not going to leave her for a long time.

“That is nothing for us to worry about, darling. The police know best.”

They heard an engine spark into life and the crunch of wheels on gravel. Katarina felt her mother tense as they listened to the van drive off.

“What did she do?” Mrs Malcolm had seemed so quiet, small, smiley, safe, with a house filled with colourful knitted throws, a bobbly rug, cracked and wobbly teapots on shelves, a crackling fire, her cat, Ditto. That poor cat. Who would feed him now? Perhaps she should. Would the men have left him alone? They hadn’t looked like ordinary police. Their uniforms seemed somehow different, smarter perhaps though it was hard to tell in the dark.

“Can’t you do anything?”

“You are not to worry about it, you are not to mention this again!” Her mother’s tension was threatening to bubble over, but she smiled thinly.

“Sleep now.” There was to be no argument. She switched off the light and closed the door with a firm click.

Katarina lay motionless, straining to listen for anything that might give her clues about what was going on. She heard her parents’ voices, muffled by the wall and by the hushed tones in which they often spoke. She thought she heard a sob but she could not be sure. Finally, when the house was silent, she pushed back the sheet and blankets and slid out of bed. She crept to the window and opened the shutters. The dark hulk of Mrs Malcolm’s house sat there, forlorn and empty.

She heard the distant rumble of a night bus bringing the late-shift workers home from the industrial areas, a dog barking, perhaps in the next borough, and finally a faint ‘mew’. The cat. Ditto. She pushed open the window a crack. The ‘mew’ came again, this time clearer and more urgent. It sounded as if he was in trouble. His third call was distressed as if he was in pain, a cry that went right though her, begged her to come out and rescue him.

Pausing to be sure that there was no sound from her parents’ bedroom she felt for her shoes under her bed and tiptoed across the landing and down to the kitchen. There was a little cooked chicken left on the larder shelf; she would take it for him.

The backdoor creaked as she eased it open and she froze, a cold statue in the night, listening, watching. The moon was not yet full but it was bright enough to give her some vision. Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dark and she could see nothing to worry her so she slipped her feet into her shoes and ran from shadow to shadow along the hard dirt path that divided her house from Mrs Malcolm’s.

She stopped. Something or someone was moving ahead, low down against the wall of the house. How stupid she was to have come out. The curfew was on and if the authorities caught her both she and her parents would be in trouble.

Stabbing pains of fear shot through her legs as she pressed herself against the wall and she held her hand over her mouth to stop a cry escaping. Something brushed against her and she heard the ‘mew’ again.

Her shoulders slumped with relief. It was Ditto. “Hello boy,” she whispered. “Are you alright? Did they hurt you? Are you hungry? I’ll look after you now ’til your mum comes back.” She gulped slightly. Mrs Malcolm might not come back.

Ditto rubbed against her and she bent to stroke him but stopped. She could hear his purr but behind it the murmur of a car or a van in the distance. That could mean only one thing – the curfew patrol.

“Quick, into the house,” she said. She wanted to check he had a safe place to sleep tonight. She also wanted to see inside Mrs Malcolm’s house.