The Last Song – chapter six

“Katarina, will you listen to me, please!” It was the third time that evening her mother had had to speak to her like this.

“Will you get along to the shop for the bread and the milk!” her mother said. “I’ve had enough of you mooning around with your head in the clouds! I don’t know what’s got into you.” Her mother looked tired, dark circles under her eyes as if she wasn’t sleeping.

“Yes, mother.” Katarina got up from the table. She scooped up the money her father had counted out for the groceries and tucked it in her pocket before leaving the house for the short walk to Corner Shop Five.

“Hello Miss Katarina.” Mr Ballard, the shop-worker smiled down at her. “What can I get for you?”

“Just a loaf of bread and two bottles of milk, please.” Katarina smiled back. She liked Mr Ballard’s shop with its shelves stacked with tins and packets, its baskets of fruit and vegetables. Her mother had told her that this was the sort of shop that her great-grandmother would have visited but that they had all but disappeared for decades. The Government of National Renewal had brought them back and now they could get all that they needed here and at the other small shops along The High Street. Each Borough had them – greengrocers; butchers; bakers; ironmongers piled high with nails, brooms, hammers, bits of wood, the sort of things that her father would buy in the hope of carrying out a little ‘home improvement’. He never managed it.

“All well down your road Miss?” asked Mr Ballard.

Katarina started. “Er, yes, er, thank you.” She frowned as she counted out the money. Of course nothing was well down her road. Had he not heard about Mrs Malcolm? Or was this a test?

She gave him a quick smile and accepted her shopping bag. He did not smile back but held her gaze until she felt uncomfortable and looked away.

“Take care, miss,” he said as she left.

It was on her way back that she heard a cat. She was passing Mrs Malcolm’s boarded up house when she heard a miaow. Was Ditto inside? If so, how would he hunt for food? She started towards the front door then halted. It was blocked up and, in any case, what if someone saw her?

Instead she veered to the left towards her own house and crashed in through the door, straight to the back room, ready to pour out her worries to her mother. She stopped. Her parents were perched on the edge of the cushioned chairs in front of the television, listening intently to a news programme. Her father held his finger to his lips. She tiptoed forward to stand next to them and placed her purchases on the table.

The news was the normal round of ‘Production is up, crime is down, the Government of National Renewal has the best interests of the people at heart’. Nothing new, apart from a small item at the end: ‘A woman has been charged with possessing subversive material. Greta Malcolm, believed to be the leader of a group of anti-government insurgents, was arrested two nights ago and was charged in court this morning. She pleaded not guilty but police say the evidence of her dangerous activities is compelling. The President praised the security forces for their swift and effective action in this case.’ Accompanying the bulletin was a picture of a woman with fair hair. It could have been Mrs Malcolm 20 years ago.

“They always do that,” spat Katarina’s father. “Dredge up some old picture which doesn’t look anything like them now. I think they change them too, make them look all shifty. They don’t want us feeling any sympathy.”

“Shh!” said her mother, taking her husband’s hand in one of her own, and Katarina’s in the other. She shut her eyes and her lips moved silently. Then she turned to her daughter. “Now Katarina, what’s that bread and milk doing in here? We must have something to eat.”

“Will Mrs Malcolm be alright?” whispered Katarina.

“Now that’s not something for you to worry about,” said her mother, her voice high and so bright it seemed it might crack.

“You are not to speak of her,” added her father then leant over and did something that he rarely did these days. He kissed her on the top of the head. “Now eat and homework!” he declared. “And then bed!” Katarina could do nothing but obey. At least, she thought, she could listen to the shell in bed.

And when she finally did, among the swelling, heart-wringing notes that poured out of the shell deep into her, she thought she could hear a cat crying. She tiptoed across the room. Ditto was under her window gazing up at her with eyes that seemed to look inside her. She gave him a small wave and padded back to bed.


The Last Song – chapter five

The night was quiet, even quieter than usual. Katarina lay in bed, listening to the eerie silence that seemed full of something waiting to happen.. Sometimes her parents watched television in the evening but tonight it was either on softly or not on at all, for she could hear no sound. And it was the same outside too, not even a patrol nearby. That was odd. It was curfew time and some of the boys at school had said that there would be more patrols out tonight keeping an eye open for ‘undesirable elements’ as they called them.

Perhaps it had been this quiet last night which is why Seamus had heard the noise at Mrs Malcolm’s house but she doubted it. The raid had been swift and professional and even the thuds and bumps would scarcely have carried that far. She might not have taken much notice of the noise outside if Mrs Malcolm had not called out, a high keening sound, like the beginning of The Call to Grieve that was played on Days of National Mourning, but as if the note was being sounded through a broken horn. Perhaps that was what Seamus had heard. It had certainly brought her out of bed and over to the window where she had seen… she shuddered again. Mrs Malcolm had looked so frail between those huge men.

She slipped out of bed and padded across to the window where she opened the shutters just enough to see her old neighbour’s house. It sat hunched and lonely in the moonlight.

She eased the shutters further open and scoured the garden for Ditto, or maybe another figure, a patrol man watching the house like the boys had said. Nothing. Perhaps the cat was out hunting. She hoped so.

She shivered and climbed back into bed, rolling over to reach down between the bed and the wall. She scrabbled around with her hand and her fingers closed on the shell. It was cool at first but as she pulled it up towards her it began to warm her. She held it to her face, rubbing it against her cheek, smiling. She remembered the old idea that you could hear the sea in a shell and she put it against her ear.

She gasped. Somewhere far away she could hear music. It wasn’t the bold, marching music of the Bands of Celebration, nor the rousing tune of the Song of National Renewal. It was something far sweeter, something that swelled and lifted, played on instruments she did not recognise. And there was a voice. She could not make out all the words but she could hear the longing there and the hope.

“ Mothe…” she started to call, but then she thought better of it. She must be dreaming and her mother would take the shell and tell her not to be silly, and not to have something like that in her bed.

She lifted it to her ear again and listened. She was not dreaming. The music poured from the shell into her, so clear and alive that she thought that it must be filling the room and swirling out like fog into the night. She pulled it away from her ear and thrust it under her pillow to smother the sound, but there was no sound. Shaking, she picked it up again and, switching on her bedside lamp, examined it. It looked like nothing but an ordinary shell.

Again she thought of calling her mother but instinct told her she should say nothing. It was best to keep quiet about anything unusual. Unusual things were not welcome.

She flicked off her light switch and lay down again under the blankets, holding the shell close to her ear. The music wrapped her and held her close and she lay there, drifting into sleep. Just as she slipped under she jerked herself awake again. She must hide the shell. Reluctantly, she pushed it under her pillow and settled to sleep again. And when she did sleep, she dreamed of Mrs Malcolm leading the town’s Band of Celebration. But instead of the drums and big brass instruments that they should have been carrying, they played instruments she did not think she had ever seen before, with long handles and wires and sticks they rubbed against the wires.

The Last Song – chapter three

Her mother said nothing about the missing chicken. She said nothing about Mrs Malcolm. No-one did. There were a few mutterings about an arrest the next day at school but only among some of the brasher older boys, who praised the police. What is there to praise about attacking a harmless old lady? thought Katarina, but she said nothing and kept her mouth shut at all times unless they were singing ‘The Song of National Renewal’ in assembly, or she had been asked a question in class. But everyone seemed a little extra jumpy, a little more prone to arguments over petty things.

Katarina herself was extra jumpy about how she was going to feed Ditto. After last night’s near miss she realised how dangerous it could be. What would they have done if the men had found her? Arrested her too? She had heard stories of children being taken in to detention centres and parents being sent for ‘rehabilitation’ to teach them how to bring up their children properly. She shivered.

But she wasn’t going to let the cat down. He had saved her last night and she knew how precious he was to Mrs Malcolm.

As the day dragged on she considered her options. She could save up her pocket money to buy food but she doubted she could afford much. She could steal from the larder but her parents would notice. She could leave him to fend for himself, but would he manage?

She was still pondering this as she mouthed the words of the Song of Gratitude and Dismissal – ‘with thanks for another day of learning, another chance to improve our lives’. As the last bars died away, she was no nearer a solution.

“Come on, everyone’s leaving!”

The voice startled her.

“You were somewhere else.” A boy stood looking down at her with a half-grin. She vaguely recognised him from a year or so above her. Seamus, she thought his name was, one of the ‘untidy set’ that her head of year, Mrs Lessing, would tut about and warn them not to copy. Certainly his hair stood up as if he’d forgotten to brush it and his tie was askew, but he had a friendly face.

“Yes, of course. I must go.” She blushed. “Got to catch the bus.”

“I’ve seen you on it. You live near Corner Shop Five don’t you?”

Katarina stuffed her books in her bag. “Yes. The bus goes soon. I mustn’t miss it. Bye.” Her bag bumped his thigh as she jumped up.

“Oh, sorry,” she mumbled and fled.

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.


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.