Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian
Tony Plumb and the Last Days at Daisy Bank
By JM Smith
Cold mud oozed between his toes, like worms surfacing after rain.
Why didn’t I think? I should’ve hidden some socks and shoes. Can’t believe I’ve actually left the building without any shoes. Hang on, where’s he gone? He was behind me a minute ago. I’d better signal, otherwise he’s going to give us away.
Tony Plumb found a dry-ish foothold and grabbed a laurel bough.
‘Pssst, Gaz, I’m over here.’
He can’t hear me. Why didn’t we plan this better?
Tony sensed a quick movement in the shrubbery, just as the moon sailed out from behind a smoky cloud. For a few seconds, the garden lit up as if someone had flicked a switch.
‘Gaz, is that you?’
‘Yeah, aaooww! I’ve scratched my arm. I brought you some trainers, dunno what size they are. This is a mud bath.’
‘Too right,’ said Tony pulling the trainers on over his sticky feet.
Hmmm, only about one size too big.
‘Thanks Gaz.’ Tony parted the branches ‘Hey, look over there.’
Through the small leafy opening, Daisy Bank, with its spooky, pointy towers hovered like a mist choked castle. From the look of it, especially in the half-light, it’s previous tenants might have been vampires, likely evicted by the darker, stronger powers of the current occupants; the humans known as The Staff at Daisy Bank. Peering through the foliage, the two boys could make out the headmistress, Mrs Sheriff and a few other staff.
A mean, late evening chill crept around its walls and threatened to suck the life out of all who dared approach.
‘See, the light’s on in the main common room. They’re holding some sort of meeting. They can’t possibly know we’ve already gone,’ said Tony.
‘They might have suspected something,’ said Gaz, looking at Tony’s feet, ‘they confiscated your shoes. And, how come you ran out so quickly? I thought we were going to wait for the staff changeover at ten o’clock.’
‘I know, sorry, and thanks for keeping your eye out. I-I just got a bit jumpy and had to go earlier. I mean I just had to go.’
…Hmm, not really going to admit that I got the complete jitters when that crispy oak leaf got caught in a spider’s web and started tapping on the window next to my bed. I mean, it looked like a little withered hand…
Tony pursed his lips and looked back at the lighted window.
Not all the staff are there, I can make out about half. The night shift won’t have arrived yet and others will be drinking coffee in the kitchen.
‘Gaz, look, Mrs Sheriff’s waving her arms about. Wow, Miss Franklyn’s thrown a book at the wall, just missing Cook and Preston’s face looks like he’s chewing cement. Fantastic! What’s going on? It’s a war in there; a total bun fight, but this isn’t about us, something else has spooked them.’
Gaz’s eyes travelled to the window. An arrow of bright light split the shadowy grey lawns of Daisy Bank; Home for Children with Difficulties. Gaz shuddered and began to blink quick and fast.
‘C’mon,’ said Tony, ‘don’t start blinking now; we haven’t time. Let’s use this chance to put some miles between us and this zoo.’
Gaz stood stock still and continued to stare at the bright window, his blinking increasing by the second. Tony grabbed his arm.
‘Save blinking ‘til later, Gaz. Let’s go this way; we’ll stick to the bushes, cut out through the side gate and onto the lane. We’ll be in Evensham town centre before you can say toodle-oo Daisy Bank. Let’s go.’
Gaz made a noise that sounded like a squeak, and ducking under a branch, followed Tony through the grounds.
‘I know where we are,’ said Tony, ‘there’s the boundary wall and that whopping diseased elm. D’you remember when Miss Franklyn nearly got bumped off last year, when that bough snapped and fell on her?’
‘Yeah, that was her fault,’ said Gaz remembering this, but not much else.
‘Too right; drinking on the job. They covered that one up a treat. Hurt herself gardening, my eyeball.’
The moon drifted behind a deep cushion of cloud and the pair paused.
‘The gate can’t be far. Whoa! watch that bank Gaz, it’s slippy. The street lamps are over there, it must be this way.’ Pools of light from the street shone over the wall, picking out their path through nubs of root and piles of dead leaves. The recent winds had marshalled the leaves into piles; lumpy shapes huddled up against the trees like homeless people, waiting for a breeze to move them on.
‘Torch!’ said Gaz. ‘Look, over there. Someone’s got a torch.’
The boys fell to their knees on the damp mulchy ground and pressed themselves into the old bricks of the boundary wall. Seasoned practitioners in the art of survival, both were experts at silence, stealth and immobility. Nothing short of a blood hound could sniff them out.
The torch beam combed the lawn. Mindful of Gaz’s galloping anxiety, Tony bit his lip, his thoughts racing.
I’m sure they know we’ve gone, they’ve started to look. We’ll be caught, dragged back by our ears and in a cold shower before we’ve even seen the gate, never mind got through it.
Gaz scrunched up into a ball. Waves of terror seeped out from his core like a massive radio signal that almost caught Tony up in its transmission.
Hmmm, he’s resumed blinking and if he carries on, pretty soon he’ll be unreachable.
‘Oliver! Oliver, come. Here Ollie, Ollie. OLLIEEEE.’
Tony laid his hand gently on Gaz’s shoulder.
‘It’s OK Gaz, keep still, it’s Rowntree, that new, so-called groundsman, y’know, that big bloke who drinks tea in his shed. It sounds like he’s lost his dog. Keep still, he’ll be gone in a minute.’
Gaz stopped blinking momentarily, just as a bounding, panting shape shoved its way through the undergrowth.
Woof, woof, woof! The yapping bounced off the boundary wall like a machine gun and echoed around the garden.
‘No! We’ve had it. Go Gaz, run!’
Keeping his head down, like a soldier on army manoeuvres, Tony bolted through the bushes and along the side of the wall. Gaz was close behind, but unfortunately so too was Ollie the collie.
‘Oi, who’s that?’ Rowntree shone his torch along the wall. ‘Who’s there?’
Ollie started to bark and leap up. Tony pushed him off. Across the moonlit lawn the grey shape of Rowntree’s elephant sized body struggled across the soft turf. ‘I can get the police y’know, it’s no skin of my nose,’ said Rowntree, his voice ringing out. ‘Go on, start your police record now, you nasty little critters. You lot, you’re destined for nowhere, you might as well let me book you in to a police cell now, so you can start as you mean to go on.’
‘Holey cheese, it’s like he knows it’s us, but, how can he? He’s gotta be guessing,’ said Tony. ‘Aaarrgh! what’s that?’
A slippy shape shot past.
‘Cool, it’s a fox, no, maybe a cat,’ said Gaz.
Ollie saw whatever it was, skidded into a tailspin and took off, yelping and looking like he’d no plans to return in a hurry.
‘Quick,’ said Tony, ‘this way, the gate’s over there.’
‘I need to do nine more,’ said Gaz.
‘OK, well do them when we’re through the gate.’
Gaz rubbed his leg. ‘I’ve torn my jeans.’
‘Yes,’ said Tony, ‘I guess neither of us reckoned on a gate with a spine of spikes and super sharp ones at that, but if it’s any consolation, I reckon this cut on my hand won’t heal before Christmas.’ Tony wiped his bleeding palm across the front of his jumper. ‘It feels good though, doesn’t it, to be out without any staff? Like I can breathe. Free at last. Let’s go to the train station and ride a few stops.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said Gaz.
‘Mmm, well fingers crossed we’ll find something. Have you any pocket money left?’ Tony asked.
‘About ten p.’
‘We’re deffo top notch escapees. I’ve got about the same. C’mon.’
‘The station as planned?’ said Gaz.
‘Yep,’ said Tony, ‘the station as planned. See, we are ace freedom-fighters. We have one enemy defeated and we’re on top of our game.’
Evensham train station was quiet, save for a beardy man in a raincoat, asleep on a bench. Grinning with excitement, the boys took in the timetable display, the chunky orange and green benches and the scuffed white line that marked the edge of the platform.
‘The workers are home and in front of their TV’s and the drinkers are still on the job,’ said Tony, wanting to respond to Gaz’s wide-eyed binge on the absence of authority. ‘It’ll be along in a minute. Oh, coolio, look Gaz, here it comes. Get on the last carriage.’
Sitting in a corner Tony kept his eyes peeled for a ticket puncher. ‘Be ready to move as soon as you see anybody in a uniform,’ he whispered. Just as the words left his tongue, a guard emerged and rumbled down the aisle of the carriage in front, purposefully heading in their direction. ‘Quick,’ said Tony pushing Gaz to his feet, ‘get off the train.’
On the platform in an instant, slamming the door hard behind them, Tony watched the guard as he scanned for signs of disturbance; his gaze as thorough and consistent as the beam from a lighthouse. Satisfied that the carriage was safely protected by his presence, the guard turned and moved back down the train.
‘Right, quick, jump back on. Now!’ Doubled up and keeping their heads down behind the seats, Tony and Gaz sneaked back on. Crouching and both trying hard not to breathe too loudly, they waited.
Someone entered the carriage.
Tony put a finger to his lips. A soft thump and a sigh told them that the new occupant had sat down, and after much rustling and muttering about a purse, a bag and a bus pass, all went quiet. Peering around the edge of the seat in front, Gaz got a good view.
‘It’s an old woman, with a load of shopping,’ he whispered, as the train hauled and wheezed its way out of the station, ‘and I can see some chips on that seat, over there, by the window.’
‘Tickets please.’ He was back.
The boys huddled down.
‘Is this going to Barston Cross?’ the woman asked.
‘Yes, madam, three stops along.’
Tony and Gaz locked eyes. Barston Cross, that’s where the funfair was. The advertisement had been all over the freebie papers that Mrs Sheriff collected to make a fire in her study. The papers always took a surreptitious detour via the boys’ dorm, before returning to her door via the label drawer in the plant watering trolley. The issues proving irresistible to snigger-worthy graffiti were removed and shredded by the very junior plant monitor; their destiny to block the laundry loo.
‘Can we go to the fun fair?’ said Gaz, his voice rising to a squeak.
Tony held up his finger as the guard’s heavy footsteps got louder. Gaz stopped breathing. Tony tried to curb the shakes and both kept their heads well down.
That’s the chips off the menu.
The carriage door clunked shut. Tony slipped on to the seat. ‘He’s gone and we’re on our way to the fair, how good is that?’
‘We can stay out all night. I wanna go on the big wheel.’
‘We will Gaz, my friend, we will.’
The suburb of Barston Cross was no more than a big village with a church, a few shops and a ring of farmers’ fields fringing its boundary. Summoned to the loud music and bright colourful lights, Tony and Gaz eagerly joined the group as it drifted to its destination. The pair exchanged an eye-roll, in mutual recognition of the obvious fact that most of the crowd were made up of glued-together families. Happy looking youngsters snugly wrapped in coats and scarves, held hands with adults and fizzed with glee. The parents, aunties, uncles and assorted older people, took note of what the children were saying and spoke back in interested tones; allowing the talk to meander along on its own little journey. Their private little journey. Lovely and warm, gentle and safe and completely unattainable.
‘C’mon Gaz, that was never going to be you and me, but it doesn’t stop us having a good time now.’ The lights from the fun fair pierced the trees as T. Rex slammed ‘Jeepster’ out into the cold night air.
Running towards the lights, Gaz screamed and punched the sky. Tony whooped in reply and jumped in the air, flicking both feet out behind him. Glassy eyed and panting, they skidded to a stop at the dodgems and fuelled with adrenaline, leapt into a car just as everything started to move. Landing with a thud on the hard, narrow seat, Tony quickly worked out how to shift the metal car to maximum speed.
‘We’re going to crash,’ said Gaz, his bloodless knuckles gripping the safety bar.
‘That’s the general idea,’ said Tony, spinning the wheel and ramming into the car of two teenage girls.
‘Hey, not so hard dumbo,’ said the one with frizzy hair, ‘this is the dodgems, not shoot to kill.’
‘Sorree,’ said Tony, too far gone in a maniacal frenzy to say anything else. U-turning the car, he jammed his foot down and tried to steer towards a gap in the circling traffic.
‘Fares please,’ said a voice from behind. Clinging like a tree frog to the pole at the back of the car, a man stuck an oily palm in front of Tony’s face.
‘My dad’s paying,’ said Gaz, ‘he’s standing over there, wi-with, the-the black jacket on.’
‘Priceless! You kids crack me up. That’s not your blinkin’ dad, that’s my brother Charlie. So OUT you get and unless you can pay, don’t come back or I’m calling the police.’
With a quick sign to the operator, the man with oily hands stopped the cars, but before he could physically haul them out, Tony and Gaz shot passed the surprised faces of the other dodgem drivers and leapt off the platform. Faster than a pair of young cheetahs, the boys bounded off toward the edge of the field.
‘We can’t go back now,’ said Gaz, catching his breath.
His heart banging against his ribs, Tony took in the swirling colours, pumping music and the dome of brightness that seemed to hang above the fair like a halo. The smell of fried onions and hot dogs drifted across the grass and a group of rollicking teens tumbled off the Meteorite, shrieking with laughter and heading for the big wheel.
Hmm, it’s either slope back to Daisy Bank, or take a chance and have another go. No contest.
‘Well,’ said Tony, ‘if we creep ‘round the other side we might be able to get on the ghost train. No body’ll know we’re in there, once we’re in.’
With practised stealth and in deep dumb silence, the pair repeated their army manoeuvres, and skirted the field. A woman selling candy floss smiled at them as they shuffled past and slipped back into the fair ground.
‘Oily Mitts and Charlie will have passed the word around,’ said Tony into Gaz’s ear, ‘so watch out, if we’re caught again it could get a bit messy.’
Almost rigid with excitement Gaz managed to nod, all blinking forgotten in the heart stirring, wild riskiness of their cunning plan.
The Ghost Train loomed to their left, promising ‘All the Chills and Thrills of a Ghoulish Encounter’. A badly painted white figure with greeny-blue eyes and blood dribbling from its mouth, beckoned them in. Tony pulled Gaz behind a hamburger van.
‘Let’s wait a bit,’ said Tony. See that chap there? the one in the woolly hat? He’s the one taking the fares. Better just watch and spy our chance.’
Gaz wrinkled his nose. ‘Yeah, OK, but I’m gettin’ cold and I’m still hungry.’ Then, as if someone had heard Gaz’s plea, a half-eaten burger, still wrapped in a serviette flew through the air and landed at their feet. Gaz fell on it like a seagull at a coastal picnic. ‘Want some?’ he asked as the last morsel disappeared down his gullet.
‘Er, no thanks. Look, he’s moving away, quick run in and grab a seat.’
Tripping over the narrow track, the boys blundered into the entrance.
A piercing howl ripped into their ears as a sign lit up, inches away, saying: ‘Dare you Dice with Death?’ Gaz screamed, Tony grabbed him and with a firm hand across his mouth, pushed him into an empty car.
‘Completely coolio,’ said Tony settling into his seat.
‘Not sure about this,’ said Gaz, ‘I’m only nine and a bit and you’re thirteen and three days; I’m allowed to be scared.’ Gaz dug his elbow into Tony’s ribs and immediate mutual nudging began, freshening the bruises from the previous nudging session of yesterday’s assembly. The pair ducked just as a spot lit, shiny black snake dropped down, right in front of their faces, opening its jaws wide and then wider. Hisssssssssss. A vapour dampened their heads.
‘Wow, look out!’
A mass of writhing spectres whooshed up in a cloud of purple smoke, their faces stretched, their toothless mouths peeling back as they screamed. Sinewy arms and claw like hands grabbed at Tony and Gaz, as if they were prey and about to be devoured. Another scream, a quick, sharp left and a stomach dropping descent. Falling, falling, down and down; the car gathered speed, hitting a blast of freezing air before they banged through ‘The Gates of Hell’ and into a scorching fire pit.
‘Blimey it’s a bit warm,’ said Gaz and burped.
‘Gaz, you gutter-gob. Your disgusting yet-to-be-digested burger blast is worse than any ghost ride. Can you keep it to yourself please?’
‘Mmm,’ said Gaz, wiping his greasy mouth on his sleeve as the red face of a laughing devil shot over their heads.
Narrowly missing the dangling hangman’s nooses, eerily lit in green, their car took a swift right through some dry ice, past a pile of coffins and slammed into some doors with ‘Sleep Well’ sploshed across in red paint.
‘I think that’s it. Get ready to make a run for it,’ said Tony, scrambling out of the car.
Keeping to the shadows they jumped a little fence and ran straight out into the wild, wide darkness of the unlit field.
‘Brill,’ said Tony.
‘I’m gonna be sick,’ said Gaz.
‘OK burger-boy, take deep breaths, you’ll be fine,’ said Tony, panting, his breath streaming out before him in the cold night air.
‘Can I help you?’ said a voice from behind. Tony spun around, just as Gaz puked up, to see a man in a long dark cloak.
‘Hello,’ said the man, ‘my name is Brian Friendly, but my friends just call me B. Would you two young chaps like a free ride on the waltzer? I’ve heard it’s very good. Because if you do, I can arrange that for you straight away. Why don’t you come with me? Or would you like something to eat? I can arrange that as well.’ B. Friendly tweaked his cloak and smiled.
‘Er, no and no,’ said Tony grabbing Gaz’s arm and backing away.
‘What about your little friend, he doesn’t seem very well. My car’s just over here, why don’t you let me take you somewhere safe, somewhere where someone can help you and make you feel better?’ B. Friendly leaned forward and smiled, his eyes seemed to glitter in the moonlight.
Because spooky-man, I don’t trust you, you freaky, smarmy weirdo.
‘No thanks, we’re just going,’ said Tony.
Gaz began to heave again. ‘Look’ said B. Friendly, ‘I’m only trying to help you two good fellows.’
Good fellows? Tony shuddered. Is he some sort of circus act? And what’s with the cloak? Are we still on the ghost train?
‘Please boys, it would be my pleasure to take you around the fun fair and treat you to whatever you like. Will you be my guests?’
‘Can we go on the big wheel?’ croaked Gaz, adding more partially digested food to his sleeve.
‘Of course, you can, my dear boy, your wish is my absolute pleasure. Follow me.’
The blood left Tony’s face as Gaz stomped after the man who swirled his cloak and moved quickly away from the fair.
‘Gaz, no! GAZ! Stop - it’s dangerous, you don’t know who he is. Stop!’ But Gaz was mesmerised; caught up in some sort of trance, as if charmed by the thought of treats with B. Friendly and suddenly immune to common sense.
‘Stop!’ Tony’s voice rang out across the grass, propelled away to infinity by the evening breeze and the sheer emptiness of the flat, dark field. Tears filled his eyes as he watched his pal almost run to keep up with the cloaked figure, who was heading for a five-barred gate and the lane.
Tony started to run.
The sound of David Bowie singing Changes, blasted out across the field as Tony galloped back towards the fair. Racing to the dodgems, he jumped on a car.
‘Whoa! Really scary, it’s going too fast. I’m gonna get thrown oooooff!’ Tony flew across the floor and slid to a halt at the edge of the barrier.
‘Ah, thought you’d come back did yer?’
‘Oily Mitts, thank goodness, I mean, please mister, a man’s got my friend an’ he’s taking him away. They’re over there. Please come, please help me.’
‘Yeah, he’s no good and creepy and he’s taken my friend.’
Teary eyed, Tony clambered to his feet. Oily Mitts was speaking into a walkie-talkie.
‘Charlie, it’s Andy, get Ant and Steve and some torches, ask Dave to cover, we might have some trouble. I’m heading out to…’ Andy looked at Tony.
‘Over there,’ Tony pointed across the field to the lane. ‘They were going over there.’
‘Sounds like Rylands Lane,’ said Andy. ‘Charlie, go over in the car and meet us there.’ Putting the walkie-talkie back into its holster, Andy turned to Tony.
‘C’mon then kid, we’d better get going.’
Half running half stumbling, Tony led Andy across the damp, lumpy field.
‘Where are you two from?’ Andy asked, between puffs.
All bravado banished by a massive rolling wave of terror, Tony hadn’t the guts to lie.
‘Daisy Bank. It’s a children’s home.’ Shooting a teary look at Andy, he didn’t think he need say anymore.
He won’t know anything, he’s only here for a few days with the fair.
‘Do they know you’re out?’
‘Not really,’ said Tony.
‘By that, I take it they are completely oblivious to the fact that you two have scarpered.’
Up ahead a dark shape moved behind the hedges.
‘Look, there!’ said Tony, pointing, ‘someone’s on the lane.’
‘I see it, let’s put a sprint on.’
With energy borne from sheer terror, Tony sped across the field, burst through the gate and onto the lane. Jabbing the air, Tony cried out to Andy. ‘There, he’s there!’
Picked out by the oncoming lights of a car, the cloaked figure swirled around, his silhouette unmistakeable. He was standing by a car and about to get in.
‘Hold it Mister,’ said Andy.
B. Friendly snatched up his cloak, bounded into his car and started the engine. Screeching into a spin and churning up the muddy lane, B. Friendly’s car headed off in the opposite direction. Tony could see Gaz’s face peering out of the back window.
Big blubbery sobs heaved out from Tony’s chest.
Within seconds, a sharp metallic sound and the squeal of ripped rubber cut through the air. B. Friendly’s car was now facing the hedge and three torch lights danced in the greyness. It was Charlie and the men from the fair. Charlie shouted something to Andy.
Tony ran to the car.
‘Come away kid!’ shouted Andy, ‘he could be dangerous!’
But B. Friendly had jumped out and was off down an unlit footpath that led away from the lane. Charlie and the men flashed their torches and Tony glimpsed the cloaked figure straddle a farm gate and drop down, before running off into the night.
Ant and Steve gave chase, but within a minute, were back. ‘Lost him,’ said Steve, ‘he knows these paths and we don’t. We’d no chance.’ Breathless, Ant and Steve leaned on the car.
Flinging open the back-passenger door, Tony held his breath as the internal light mushroomed on, and there, blinking for Britain, was Gaz.
‘Gaz, Gaz, are you OK? Gaz, speak to me.’
Gaz stopped blinking and slowly turned to face his chum. ‘I knew something was wrong Tony, when we were walking away from the big wheel. I tried to slow him down, but he dragged me.’
‘Oh Gaz,’ said Tony, pushing off a tear.
‘But, when we got to the lane, I stood under that street lamp back there and started doing my blinking and he stopped, I don’t think he knew what to do. Maybe he thought I was about to have a fit or something. He was going to leave me and then he changed his mind and shoved me in the car.’
‘Why didn’t you just run?’ asked Andy, leaning into the conversation.
Both boys looked at Andy and sighed simultaneously. ‘It’s complicated,’ they said, like they’d practised a duet.
Andy looked at Tony and then at Gaz.
I don’t think he knows what we mean, but short of reading him our medical records, I think I’ll leave it there. This is all my fault. Gaz’s much too young for a jaunt like this. I shouldn’t have let him come. What was I thinking?
Tony caught Andy’s eye. ‘That man in the cloak, do you think he’s local? I mean will the police do anything?’ Worries about explaining their escapade and what had happened to Mrs Sheriff, began to gather.
‘Cloak? What cloak?’ said Andy.
‘Oh, er, no cloak, of course, no cloak, I mean the-the man who tried to kidnap Gaz, would the police need to know?
‘It’s probably a good idea to report this. That guy could be a real danger, other kids might be at risk.’
‘I will. I’ll report it when I get back to, um, Daisy Bank.’
Tony studied his trainers. This is going to complicate things even more, but maybe Mrs Sheriff will panic and focus on the police thingy, rather than on us and where we’ve been.
‘Look kid, we’ve gotta go, we need to get back to the fair. How are you two going to get back to your place, to Daisy what is it?
Everything’s edgy now, too edgy, overwhelmingly edgy. That man must have taken off his cloak before Andy had chance to see it. Odd though, because Andy had been pretty much by my side. If I saw it surely, he would have seen it too? Oh, I don’t know, it’s all a bit too much.
‘Um, dunno how we’ll get back,’ Tony mumbled.
Andy let out a sigh. ‘How far away is this Daisy Home?’
‘Four stops on the train,’ said Tony, ‘so I dunno, a few miles.’
‘Yeah, quite a few miles,’ said Andy, checking his watch. ‘Look there’s no reason why I should help you both but considering what you’ve been through. Hey, Charlie…’
Gaz climbed out of B. Friendly’s car and both boys sat on the grass verge. Tony looked at his small pal. His jumper smelled of sick and the side of his face was streaked with mud. ‘It’ll be OK,’ said Tony.
Gaz had already resumed blinking.
Andy took the car keys from Charlie.
‘C’mon, get in Charlie’s car. I’ll take you back.’ Tony climbed in the front seat and Gaz slipped in the back. As they took off down the lane Tony turned, Gaz was dozing off, a thin silver drool on his chin.
Snatching a look through the window, Tony could just see Charlie, Ant and Steve making their way back across the field to the fair, while B. Friendly’s car lay stranded at the side of the lane like a legless, hulking beast.
‘Shall we take the car’s number plate?’ asked Tony, thinking this might be further ammunition to throw at Mrs Sheriff and keep her off their backs.
‘A bit late now,’ said Andy indicating on to the main road.
‘Um, sorry,’ said Tony.
‘S’OK,’ Andy replied.
The dash board clock said 01.17am. Tony let out a harboured breath.
We’re really for it. I’d better start embroidering the story to include the would-be killer; a man with a knife or maybe a gun, who trapped us and took us to a lonely cave, on a moor…No, can’t say that, I don’t know if there are any moors around here – what about somewhere lonely and dreadful and un fit for children? Us poor kids… That sounds good and should get the Sheriff off our tail. Hang on though, how will I convince her we were kidnapped from Daisy Bank? Rowntree’s gonna blab and land us in it.
Who ever said it was always better to tell the truth was probably onto something unquestionably right.
‘Is it left to Ollesden or right to Dillion Gate?’ said Andy, slowing to a stop at a T-junction
Reality shot back on elastic and Tony’s imagination crashed. ‘Mm, not sure, er, I think it’s near Dillion Gate and then maybe towards Thorton.’
Andy nodded and indicated.
What if we just sneak back in? Yes! How would they know? They wouldn’t. No member of staff has ever done a bed check after one a.m. If Andy could just drop us by the gate, we could get in the way we got out and coolio, we could be back in our bunks and ready to rise and shine at breakfast time.
Tony glanced again at the numerals on the dash. Gaz snored softly.
There’ll only be one carer awake now, the rest will have nodded off in the staff room. This could work.
Street lamps scudded overhead as the car entered a town. The houses stood in darkness and the shops flanking the pavement were shuttered and quiet. Side alleys and passageways punctured the line of buildings, litter danced across the road and shadows hid the watching cats.
‘I want a wee.’ Gaz had surfaced.
Andy pulled over. Gaz got out and watered a privet. Jumping back in, they took off and pretty soon a sign for Thorton pointed left. More houses and a church flashed past and then a supermarket; its carpark lit up, huge and empty, as if the people of the world had left it behind for good.
‘When we get there, will you just leave us at the gate, er, please?’ asked Tony glancing quickly at Andy.
Through the window, Tony recognised a row of shops and a tree-lined road where a local street party had gone ahead, but only to commiserate, when Arsenal had lost the FA cup to Leeds. It had been on the news and the freebie papers had run a piece with colour photographs. The kids at Daisy Bank had talked of it incessantly. Tony was sure the street was called Albion Road and that Daisy Bank was on the next block. The photos of the street party had stayed on the noticeboard at Daisy Bank for months.
‘I know where we are,’ said Tony. ‘It’s just down here and down the next street. You can drop us off now, if you like.’
‘Are you sure it’s close by?’ said Andy, slowing down and peering through the windscreen.
‘Deffo, honestly, I know where we are. Please.’ Andy nodded and Tony exhaled.
‘OK buddy, it’s up to you. I’m not going to be here after Sunday, so this is the best I can do. Out you get.’
Gaz tumbled out and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
‘Thanks Andy,’ said Tony.
‘You two look after yourselves. You both got lucky this time, but it might not be the same next time, so no repeats, right?’ Andy indicated and with a swift look over his shoulder sped away.
‘Right,’ said Tony, and pulling the drooping, sleepy Gaz away from the wall, set off in the direction of Daisy Bank.
‘We’ve been walking for aaahges,’ said Gaz, whose walk had developed the style of a person who’d had their spine removed and their boots filled with lead. His head bobbed off one shoulder then the other, and his slitty eyes opened wide every ten seconds or so, the opposite of his friend, the blink.
‘I know, but it should be around this corner. I could have sworn we were close by, it should be right here.’ Tony stopped and looked blankly at a piece of spare land cordoned off with metal uprights and some torn chicken wire.
‘Is it ‘round the other side of that building?’ mumbled Gaz.
‘Maybe, but where’s the wall and the dead elm? You should be able to see that elm from the road, so where is it?’
‘Dunno, is it down there?’
‘Could be, I’m not sure. Hang on what does that sign say?’
Looking up at a shop front, the type that has the owner’s name above the window, Tony read:
Arthur J. Deacon Fruit and Veg. Tel: Thorton 55749
‘Thorton, no! Daisy Bank’s in Evensham. We’re in the wrong town.’
Holey cheese, I was so keen to get us out of the car and see Andy off before any disturbance got back to Mrs Sheriff, that I’ve just completely messed up. We’re probably two or three miles away from Evensham.
A distant car parped its horn and somewhere a clock struck two resounding notes.
‘Two o’clock in the morning and I’m getting cold.’
Gaz had wandered ahead to a bus stop and was beginning to get comfy across two plastic seats. The armrest, designed to stop feral sleeping, had been helpfully torn off by the previous incumbent.
‘I’m cold too,’ said Gaz.
‘OK, OK, let’s try and find somewhere a bit warmer and we’ll have a quick sleep and get back before breakfast and before they know we’ve gone.’
The likelihood of this plan working was beginning to slip away, along with Gaz’s capacity to stay awake.
‘Come back when you’ve found a sign post,’ Gaz slurred.
Tony stared down the empty street.
Like where? Night clubs are likely to be shutting up now; even if I knew where they were, which I don’t.
It seemed to happen so quickly. One minute he was standing in a bus stop with a cold chum losing his consciousness and the next, witnessing the teen crowd from the fair as they jostled around the corner, still whooping, still happy, still awake and definitely going somewhere warmer than a bus stop.
The sofa in Midge’s front room was a two-seater and Colin sat on the chair. Gaz was nestled in a tartan bean bag and out cold.
‘Is this Midge’s house?’ Tony asked Colin, when at last everybody had drifted off to their beds.
‘Yeah, Midge is a brain-box, though you wouldn’t think it to look at him. He’s eighteen an’ works for the Tax Office. Jakey’s seventeen an’ he works at Pearson’s; the girls who were with us earlier, Bobbi and Vicky, are even cleverer than Midge, they’re at a posh school in Evensham, and I’m doin’ O levels, which are drivin’ me nuts.’
‘I’ll probably do some tests next year,’ said Tony dragging up a vague recollection of a half conversation with Mrs Sheriff’s secretary.
‘Yeah well good luck. Look, I need some kip.’
Tony squeezed in another question. ‘Do you live here too?’
‘Nah, this is Midge and Jakey’s place. Midge’s Mum owns it and Midge and Jakey pay her rent. I’m, um, still at home.’
Tony nodded. ‘Thanks for the toast.’
‘No sweat. I’ll ask you about you, tomorrow,’ said Colin, already beginning to doze.
‘Hmmm,’ said Tony.
Dreams of men in cloaks, car headlights and a carousel that wouldn’t stop to let him off, peppered Tony’s overnight stay. Back on the ghost train, the Sheriff, Miss Franklyn and Preston billowed up in a green vapour, their faces grinning manically, their hands clasping axes dripping with blood. The trio swarmed up close, their breath hot and sour, before dissolving in a thin stream of gas that expired through the letter box, in the door of Daisy Bank.
With half an eyeball on the mantel clock, he dodged the arms of troubled slumber and stayed on the fringes of an equally worrying wakefulness.
It’s five thirty and time to go.
He nudged Gaz with his foot. ‘Gaz, C’mon, we gotta go.’ Colin, still in the chair, softly snored.
Scribbling ‘Thank you’ on an envelope marked Inland Revenue, Tony laced up his trainers and half carrying, half dragging the smaller boy, shut the front door quietly and squinted down the road. It was still dark, and the street lamps were on.
Looks like the high street is at that end. I don’t remember us spending our pocket money, maybe we could catch a bus.
They made it to the bus stop. Gaz slumped against the glass and Tony fixed his gaze on a point in the distance, until a double-decker rounded the corner. Gaz didn’t stand up even when the bus had stopped. Shwoosh. The doors wheezed open.
‘Are you going past Daisy Bank children’s home?’ Tony asked.
‘Next one,’ said the bus driver, ‘it’ll be along in five minutes.’
Tony climbed off the bus and looked down the street.
‘Will we be back in time for breakfast?’ Gaz asked.
Look at those puffy eyes. How silly of me to bring him along. There’s no way Gaz’s ready to leave home, not even one as uncomfortable as Daisy Bank with its creepy carers, freezin’ showers and stupid rules. Unlike me I bet he’ll be glad to get back.
‘Don’t ruffle my hair, dingbat, I’m not a kid,’ said Gaz, pushing Tony’s hand away.
Suddenly, a dark shape on the other side of the street caught Tony’s eye.
What? It can’t be. It’s him, B. Friendly, in his flippin’ cloak.
Grabbing Gaz and attempting to hide, Tony turned his back, holding Gaz from view.
Tony’s shoulders seized up and tightening his grip on Gaz’s arm, he screwed up his eyes.
‘Excuse me, is this the bus stop for Evensham?’
Turning slightly and allowing a pinprick of light to enter his eye, Tony saw that the questioner was a dad-type chap, with two suitcases and two young daughters.
‘Y-yeah, it is,’ said Tony, letting out a breath. Gaz wriggled out of his grip.
‘Told you,’ said the elder girl. ‘I’ve been there lots.’
‘Well I’ve never been before,’ said the man, ‘and definitely not this early.’
The bus crept around the bend and into view.
Darting a look over the road, the man in the cloak had gone.
‘C’mon Gaz, upstairs, back row.’
The man and his daughters sat downstairs.
Wow, it’s feels so good to be sitting on a bus and paying my fare, like an ordinary person; like a person with a wallet and somewhere to go. Better still, we’ll make it back in time. Coolio.
The bus rumbled into Evensham.
‘Look Gaz, there’s the elm, get off.’
Crossing the road just as daylight got the better of the night time sky, Tony nudged his friend.
‘The gates are open, c’mon, quick, there must have been a delivery or something. Let’s get back to our room. Stay on the grass, the gravel might make too much noise.’
Still sleepy, Gaz complied.
‘Let’s creep ‘round by the laundry and climb back through that window. Rowntree might not be here yet and…’
Gaz opened half an eye. ‘Too late, Tony.’
Following his chum’s grimy finger, Tony snatched at air.
‘They’ve got us.’
In the sharpening morning light, Mrs Sheriff, Miss Franklyn and Preston moved in a solid huddle; crunching across the forecourt and heading directly for Tony and Gaz.
Tony froze and Gaz began to blink.
The trio were moving quickly; their arms outstretched like zombie flesh-seeking robots, they soon got close. It was useless trying to make a run for it, they were only yards away. Tony could see a glint in Mrs Sheriff’s eye.
‘Plumb and whoever you’re with, come here at once!’
Is it better to run or to come quietly?
Miss Franklyn’s face appeared to have been through a pencil sharpener, the Sheriff looked like someone had stolen her eyelids and Preston swayed about.
Miss Franklyn hissed out another invitation. ‘We said come here Plumb and that means NOW.’
The threesome had them circled. Gaz began to blub. Preston and Miss Franklyn caught hold of a boy apiece and began to walk them firmly, towards the main entrance. Mrs Sheriff surveyed them both with a bulging eye and snarled.
‘Thank you, Madams and Sir, we’ll take over now,’ said a deep voice from the shrubbery. ‘You are being taken in for questioning. If you would like to accompany Sergeant Collins and Police Constable Brown to the awaiting police car, I’ll be with you at the station shortly.’
The staff stopped and stood back.
‘It’s the police,’ whispered Tony, ‘Sheriff’s grassed on us, that’s it, it’s over Gaz, we’re going to jail, or somewhere much worse.’ The boys froze as two policemen walked straight past them, to take the arm of Mrs Sheriff.
‘Get your hands off me,’ shouted the headmistress, ‘I’m not a common criminal, there has been some mistake. Nothing improper has occurred in this home. We take our duties seriously...’
Tony and Gaz looked at each other.
Inspector Capstick ordered two cups of tea and a plate of toast for Tony and Gaz. A pink faced Police Constable set off to the kitchen.
Tony’s gaze slowly swept the room.
Gaz is holding off the blinking, but he looks like he daren’t move his head. I’ve never been in the staff sitting room before, it’s like a hotel. Cushions and a TV, wow.
‘Well boys, you need to know a few things. It looks like you’ve been out for a little jaunt and we’ll get to that in a moment. PC Allsop will take details when he comes back with the toast, but first it’s my job to tell you that neither yourselves, nor any of the other youngsters at Daisy Bank, will be staying on.’
‘How come?’ said Tony, quietly.
‘It’s closing,’ replied Inspector Capstick, lifting his hands, ‘that’s all I can say at the moment, but you’ll all be moving on.’
‘Where are we going?’ asked Tony.
‘Social services will talk to all of you and matters will be taken forward from there.’
Gaz’s blinking increased as Tony grabbed eye contact with the Inspector. ‘I need to report a creepy man with a cloak, a b-bad man who nearly kidnapped Gaz, he was an evil monster; the cloak was big and black and long. His n-name was B. Friendly and it was as if he’d come out of the ghost train…’
Inspector Capstick started to nod.
The Police Constable returned with a tray and put it down in front of the boys.
‘Get social services will you, Allsop?’ said the Inspector.
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