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.