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 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.