“Being a vampire really sucks,” Willow grumbled and bit into the postman without much enthusiasm. Mr Lightfoot’s neck was rather sunburned and leathery.
“What will happen to our post? If the Royal Mail’s replacement can’t find our house, I’ll never discover who won the children’s poetry competition! This year I stand a really good chance of being in the top three!” Willow complained to her mother Alice. It was most inconsiderate dishing up Mr Lightfoot just when he was needed.
“Poetry? By all that is sinister and evil, please tell me you’re not writing poetry? I blame you for this!” Alice shot an accusing glance at her husband Dylan, who ducked behind his newspaper.
“Darling, being married to a gifted musician has its occasional drawbacks. I warned you this might happen when we got engaged. By the way, who won last year’s competition, my princess?” He peered over the edge of his newspaper and stretched out his hand to run his fingers through his daughter’s soft brown hair.
“Felicity Henderson, who else? The school geek is bound to walk away with this year’s first prize, too. She wins everything in sight, thanks to her dad being best friends with the headmaster.” Willow helped herself to a slice of cured meat, which her mother held out to her on a silver platter. “Hmmm, smells great, Mum.”
“Go on, take another slice. I used sandalwood, cinnamon and cloves. It’s a new recipe. Left him in the smokehouse for 72 hours. The vicar’s absolutely delicious, don’t you think?” Alice heaped more cured vicar and lettuce onto her daughter’s plate. Willow contemplated the remains of Mr Wilberforce, late vicar of the parish Stinkforth-upon-Avon, with a frown. Being a vampire really sucked sometimes.
Just when one had established friendly relations with new neighbours without wishing to get too familiar with them, they’d turn up unexpectedly for dinner…The vicar, who’d cycled past their house on his way to church every week, had been foolish enough to approach Willow’s dad in the lane and ask him to Sunday service. The Bands, while not averse to communicating with their immediate neighbourhood, had no desire to participate in village activities and valued their privacy above all else. Willow sighed. Vicar Wilberforce really should have known better than to ask a vampire to help out at the village fete! No wonder her dad’s temper and Vicar Wilberforce’s neck had snapped.
She had liked the young man though, despite his clumsy attempts to lure her into his Sunday school. Willow forgave him for this tasteless joke, however, when it turned out, he’d only wished to introduce her to a local reading group giving out free children’s books. Now she’d have to use Stinkforth village library again! She shuddered at the thought. The assistant librarian always tried to fondle her cheek or pull her pigtails when she handed him her books and library card. Willow sighed and helped herself to another slice from the silver platter. She might as well show reverence where it was due and Cured Wilberforce with Lettuce was turning out to be quite a dish.
“No daughter of mine writes poetry! You should be out practicing your hunting skills instead of brooding in your stuffy room. Go out, enjoy your summer holidays.”
Her mother Alice was still grumbling when she cleared the dinner table half an hour later.
“Let her be, Babe! Who knows, she might start writing song lyrics one of these days. We could be a father-daughter-singer-songwriter duo. Perhaps we’ll record a CD at my studio! I don’t think they’d play our songs on Radio Two somehow, do you Princess?” Dylan giggled reaching for his guitar.
“They might play our songs on MTV, Dad!” Willow burst out laughing. Her mother threw a tea towel at her and Willow escaped through the backdoor into the garden.
“Practice stalking your prey whilst you’re out there! It’s about time you made your first kill.” Her mother shouted after her and banged the door shut.
“Being an evil demon really stinks,” Willow muttered and trudged along the muddy path leading away from their isolated house. The moon lit up the fields surrounding their home and the heavy scent of mown grass, wet soil and cow dung filled the air.
Unlike her parents, who had been turned by other vampires in a century old tradition of first biting, then sucking their victim’s blood until they were near death and then giving them a small amount of vampire blood to drink before finally killing them and thus ensuring their return into afterlife, Willow had entered the world just like any other human baby.
Nobody knew how such a thing could have happened. It was certainly unheard of among the legions of vampires who had met for their annual convention at London’s Beating Pulse club during Halloween. Even the great Dracula himself, who had joined them via telephone-conference from his winter residence in Sydney, had never come across an incident of vampires giving birth. It was unheard of, unnatural and frankly, outrageously human!
This strange occurrence of her birth set Willow apart from other vampires. On the one hand it made her special, as her parents kept telling her. On the other hand, it singled her out for much ridicule among vampire children. They didn’t age or grow taller. They didn’t get spots either. Willow would have to go through the very human process of growing up and it was not a prospect she relished. Willow reached the lane and stopped, wondering which direction she should choose for her evening stroll. The fields would be too soggy after this afternoon’s rainstorm. The path was bad enough. She had nearly slipped and fallen by the garden gate. In the distance her sharp eyes caught a glimpse of a flock of geese resting on Mr Edwards’s meadow. She made up her mind and turned left into the lane, heading for the old hunting lodge. She liked Mr Edwards, the farmer. In spring, when they had first moved from London to the parish of Stinkforth-upon-Avon, he had let her play with the lambs and this summer his wife had shown her the piglets in the barn. Willow stopped dead in her tracks. Would her parents dish up Mr Edwards one day, served with new potatoes and parsley sauce?
She sighed and hoped the Royal Mail would continue to supply them with deliveries of meaty postmen, preferably less leathery ones than Mr Lightfoot. Farmer Edwards and his lovely wife could remain safely in their farmhouse instead of staring at her from her mother’s silver platter. The old hunting lodge was Willow’s favourite spot in the entire neighbourhood. Rising up before her was a tumbledown house on a hill. Uninhabited for thirty years, the house stood forlorn among fruit trees in an overgrown garden overlooking the valley. The river the lodge had once been a desirable property, but now the broken windows stared blindly into the darkness, the trees no longer bore fruit and the flowerbeds contained weeds instead of roses. She struggled up the slippery lane, let herself in through the creaky garden gate and walked up the broken flagstones, until she reached a rickety garden bench that stood underneath the living room window. Willow sat down and listened into the night.
Raindrops slid of leaves and hit the ground like miniscule missiles. Somewhere above her the rainwater ran its course through the drain pipes and down into the ground. All around her small furry hunters went about their business catching worms and insects. She settled back into her seat and drank in the damp night air, filled with the scent of rotting leaves, the first apples, mouse droppings and…something else!
Uneasy, she listened more closely to the nightlife around her. Her acute hearing caught a mole digging a new tunnel, an adder heading for a bird’s nest, a mouse scurrying away into its tunnels and …the furtive shuffling of feet! A rustling noise not ten feet away betrayed an intruder standing by the apple tree. Willow was immediately on her guard and got up from the bench. She sniffed the air again. It was a man…and he reeked of cigarette smoke and beer.
“Who’s there? State your business!” Willow shouted into the darkness, her claws drawn. Her sudden movement caught the man by surprise and he retreated by a couple of steps to seek safety behind the apple tree.
He peered out from his hiding place and saw Willow approach cautiously. “Hold your horses! This is my place…I’ll have you know…I’m a released convict!”
Willow had stopped dead in her tracks and was now no more than three yards distance from his tree; the man could finally make out her small frame hesitating on the path. He hastily added: “ Don’t be alarmed. My name’s Eddie, I’m seventy-years-old. Quite harmless these days.” Eddie stepped out from behind the tree, tapping the flagstones with his walking stick. “Got my leg broken when I was inside. Who are you and what are you doin’ in my garden?”
“I live nearby. My name’s Willow, I’m eleven-years-old and…you may be harmless but I’m a bloodthirsty fiend!” Willow straightened her pigtails and held out her hand. “Why were you in prison?”
“Cause I’m evil or so they said at the time. Killed my wife, see. Long time ago now. A whole lifetime in fact. Only came out of prison this mornin’. Nowhere else to go, see.” Eddie shook her hand and pointed at the bench. “May I sit down? The leg’s causin’ me a bit of bother.”
“You killed your wife? Why? Did she make you jealous or did you want to inherit her money?” Willow made room on the bench and Eddie sat down heavily. An aroma of beer, tobacco and mold mingled with stale sweat assaulted her nose.
Eddie turned to her and she could hear the bones in his neck creak. “Nah, nothin’ so romantic. Always pushin’ me around she was. Always choppin’ up things in the kitchen, busy makin’ her pies for the local pubs she was. Eddie fetch me this…fetch me that. Eddie feed the chickens. Eddie sharpen the knives, clear the feathers off the table, boil them chicken wings so we can have a nice broth for the vicar on Sunday.”
“We had the vicar for dinner tonight.” Willow smiled. “So you killed your wife ‘cause she was a nagging old cow?” She peered at him from under her eye lashes and took in his thinning white hair, shabby coat and second hand trainers.
“Nah, I killed her ‘cause she was evil. She made me feed those chickens every day, clean out their hen house, sing them to sleep. I nursed them from when they were tiny chicks, all fluffy and yellow. Warm to your skin, when you hold them in your hand. She could have had all the other chickens, just not my Henrietta. Genuine Leghorn. Used to read Kipling to her...” Eddie sniffed and wiped his eyes.
“She killed your pet chicken? That’s horrible!”
“I remember it as if it was yesterday! Came home from makin’ a delivery to the Boar’s Head and found Hetty’s feathers all over the kitchen floor. My wife stood there wieldin’ her rollin’ pin, crushin’ the life out of some innocent pastry. Laughin’ her head off, she was. Boastin’ how she’d get at least fifteen pies out of my beloved Hetty. I saw red. Just snapped, I guess. Picked up the meat cleaver and chopped my wife to bits.”
“Well, she deserved it, if you ask me. I can’t abide cruelty to animals. What happened next?” Willow reached into her pocket and found a couple of toffees. She handed one to Eddie.
“I made use of the pastry. No point lettin’ it go to waste. Sealed the meat in the fryin’ pan, slow cooked it in the oven with onions, mushrooms, white wine and herbs. Meat turned out ever so tender. Rather a surprise if you think about it. She was never tender durin’ her lifetime. Filled up 150 individual meat pies with her! The best day’s business the Boar’s Head has ever seen, I’d wager. The entire village had lunch in the pub that day. Pity the local GP had to find that finger bone in his portion.” Eddie unwrapped his toffee thoughtfully and popped it in his mouth.
“What a shame, you nearly got away with it. You did the right thing, though. People who kill other people’s pets deserve to die, I reckon.”
“I got the maximum sentence ‘cause I showed no remorse. Evil through and through they said I was. Who’s that judge and jury tellin’ good folks from bad? They’d never lived with my wife. They’d never held those chicks in their hands on a cold winter’s mornin’-”
“It sucks being evil,” Willow interrupted. “I mean…one gets such bad press. I’ve tried becoming a good person, honest. Only last month I resisted shredding Felicity’s gym kit. I even tried to become a vegetarian once.” Willow shuddered at the memory of biting into a turnip, sucking out its sickly sweet juice. “I just can’t do it.”
“In prison I had a lot of time to think about things. Reckon you’re only evil if you kill good things. Wilhelmina was poison. How could killin’ her be an evil deed? She’d even tried to cheat the old vicar once at a jumble sale. Trustin’ like a child he was. She put grizzle and fat into her pies and used half rotten vegetables for her pickles to boost the profits, greedy cow. Made a fortune out of that nice couple runnin’ the White Hart down by the river.”
“The new vicar was just as trusting…” Willow’s tongue dislodged a morsel of meat, which had got stuck between her long teeth. A picture of Felicity Henderson and her irritating dad flashed up in Willow’s mind. “Perhaps I could practice being good by eating only bad things?”
“I reckon you’ve got somethin’ there, little fiend. But you’ve got to think things through first. I shouldn’t have served my wife as delicious veal pie to the local pub. That was unforgivable. I should have fed that piece of poison to those evil swine runnin’ the laboratory at the bottom of the lane! Testin’ on dogs and cats they are, read it in the paper this mornin’.”
“They torture defenseless pets at that lab? How disgusting! That’s truly…EVIL.” Willow shifted in her seat and the bench answered with a protesting squeak. A thought had struck her. “My mother asked me to practice after dinner…I wonder…you’re not very mobile with that broken leg…but there’s a wheelbarrow by the old shed. Do you think we could make it to the end of the lane in that thing?”
“Reckon we could. What’s on your mind, bloodthirsty little fiend?” Eddie turned to her, for the first time taking in her pale face and big brown eyes.
Willow felt rather self-conscious under his gaze, so she got up, straightened her long dark coat and held out her hand to the old man. He rose with difficulties, groaning slightly as he did so and leant heavily on his walking stick. She helped Eddie to hobble to the shed and he let himself fall into the wheelbarrow, looking up at her with a puzzled look on his unshaven face. Not for the first time she was glad her vampire strength would allow her to carry heavy loads. Usually this meant carrying home a backpack full of books or hurling the school bully over a hedge. On the way back the wheelbarrow would be twice as heavy… She lifted up the wheelbarrow’s handles and they trundled down the lane with her gumboots squelching in the mud and the barrow’s rusty wheels squealing in protest. The air was cool and fresh after all that rain and after the long days of stuffiness and heat, nature was coming back to life with renewed vigour. Willow had to duck sharply when a bat flew over their heads. They could feel her wings almost brushing their hair, but the tiny aerial acrobat was too much of an expert to hit them. An owl hooted in the trees lining the lane and for the first time in weeks Willow felt that she belonged. After getting stuck in the quagmire of the lane several times, they had finally reached the end of their journey. The Stinkforth Cosmetics Testing Facility stood brooding in the darkness, its windows protected by metal bars. A wire fence reared up in front of them. Willow stepped out onto the tarmac in front of the fence and a CCTV camera whirred into action.
“Come back! They’ll see us on that thing. There’ll be a guard runnin’ out any minute now! The police will be called.” Eddie said nervously.
“No - they won’t be. The guard will look at his monitor and see an old man sitting in a wheelbarrow. An old man with a broken leg…alone…harmless…stuck in the muddy lane.”
A door slammed across the yard. A torchlight and heavy footsteps headed towards them.
“But they’ll see you! They’re scum, they won’t stop at hurtin’ a little girl.”
“Don’t worry…I won’t show up on their monitor. Specialty of my family, not having a reflection in mirrors and on monitors.”
“Oh…you mean…you really are a bloodthirsty fiend?” Eddie gasped. “What are you goin’ to do?”
“Practicing my hunting skills, just as Mum asked and saving the Royal Mail from training lots of different postmen. By the way Eddie, did you say you liked poetry?”
“Yeah, why? You don’t think you’re goin’ to stop that guard with a recital of Shakespeare’s finest, do you?”
“Nah, I’m just going to dish out some poetic justice! Good practice for next year’s poetry competition,” Willow said without wasting another thought on Felicity Henderson or reports of last year’s rigged results.
The guard had reached the fence and was busy punching a security code into the panel by the gate. Willow’s teeth glinted in the torchlight. With one mighty leap she jumped across the fence and hurled herself at the guard. Eddie saw the man’s arm flay helplessly in the air, like a drowning man coming up for the third time, his legs thrashing about on the tarmac. The guard’s screams filled the night air. Eddie closed his eyes and clamped his hands tightly over his ears to shut out the man’s death throes. A final gurgling sound escaped through the guard’s clenched teeth and then he was still. The torchlight went out and the forecourt was dark once more. Eddie let his hands slide from his ears and opened his eyes. The CCTV camera had stopped whirring and darkness enveloped everything. At first Eddie thought he was surrounded by silence, but then he noticed a drip…drip…drip sound coming from a short distance away. He lifted his head and looked skywards, but it was not rain that drummed on the ground by the wheelbarrow. Eddie shuddered when he realised that blood drops were sliding off the guard’s throat, hitting the metal handles of the barrow. Willow let the dead guard slide off her shoulders and onto the wheelbarrow, where Eddie recoiled from the still warm body. Willow picked up the handles of the cart and started pushing her load up the muddy lane. She chuckled, as Eddie tried to get more comfortable and nearly poked his own eye out on the guard’s whistle that was fastened around the corpse’s neck. When they had reached the lodge, Willow removed the body and helped Eddie out of the cart.
“Can I borrow this? I’ll bring it back tomorrow, honest. My house is just down the lane from Farmer Edwards’s barn.” Willow pointed vaguely into the direction of her home.
“Yeah, sure. Erm…I’m sorry I didn’t believe you earlier. Are your parents…like you?”
“Bloodsuckin’ Fiends R Us, you mean? Yep, that’s the Band’s family trade. Will you be alright…I know it’s your home and all that…but the house has been empty for thirty years and –“
“I reckon after tonight I won’t be scared of a few ghosts!” Eddie pointed at the dead guard. “It’s not so bad…it’s a roof over my head and a front door that I can open and step through whenever I like…what more could I possibly want?”
Willow’s eyes began to swim. “My mum and dad once left me, when we were living in some dump in London…the door was locked and the place reeked of mold. There was no way out, the flat was 5 floors up. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be unable to go out for thirty years –“
“Peaceful…most of the time…although I reckon I’ve done double time, cause livin’ with Wilhelmina was just like bein’ in prison. Tell you what, if you really like poetry, come for tea…if you drink tea…sorry, I don’t really know what your kind –“
“I’d love to!” Willow said quickly, before Eddie could change his mind. “Mum’s muffins are famous! I’ll bring some. See ya!”
She picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles again and trundled down the lane, waving at Eddie just before she passed out of sight. He watched her until she disappeared in the darkness and hobbled up to his house, wondering what kind of muffins one could expect from a household that ate security guards for breakfast. Humming along to the sound of her squelching boots and the squeak of the wheels, Willow imagined her mother’s face, when her daughter showed her the contents of the wheelbarrow. There were still a few more weeks left, before school started, plenty of time for revision…the essay on local hero Wilhelmina Bathsalt still needed polishing and Willow had a couple of verses on her sonnet to complete. She stopped at her garden gate, pushed the protesting cart through with some effort and looked up to her house, where a glow coming from the living room window told her that her dad had waited up for her. The car was missing…her mum was probably out hunting. Willow smiled. Eddie had said there were seventy people working at the laboratory. Plenty of hunting practice during the autumn term! Mum will be so pleased, Willow thought as she deposited the guard onto the porch. His head rolled back and the congealed blood on his torn throat glistened in the moonlight. She let herself in through the back door and, looking back at her first kill sprawled across the porch, she wondered if she should surprise her parents with breakfast in bed.
Two blissful weeks passed during which Willow practiced her stalking and hunting skills, having found an ample supply of prey among the cosmetic research staff. Whenever she could get away, she spent time with Eddie, who enjoyed her company. He was quite an accomplished artist and apart from poetry he also enjoyed drawing. He showed her his sketches of birds, squirrels and waterfowl and told her he had attended an arts class in prison but the drawings were all done from memory. She in turn read him some of her poetry and they discussed a suitable subject for the annual school poetry competition to be held in September. Willow didn’t know many people in Stinkforth-upon-Avon and visiting Eddie gave her an excuse to get out of the house and escape her parent’s bickering.
The school holidays were nearly over, when the fine weather broke and torrential rain set in, putting an end to Willow’s hunting practice. Living with two cooped up vampires who were at odds with one another was not easy. Her father’s artistic temperament was difficult to live with at the best of times, but since they had moved to the countryside, his prima donna outbursts had driven her mother to distraction and Willow into the garden, where she had started to cultivate her own little vegetable patch to augment Eddie’s meagre diet. The situation wasn’t helped by her dad’s creative streak having temporarily lapsed into a dry spell. Every day her dad found new things to rage against. His latest complaint was aimed at the local wildlife, which was clearly conspiring against him to sabotage the recording of his latest album. He insisted pigeons in the attic made such a racket, they disturbed his sleep. Another group of wicked saboteurs, a family of squirrels living in the circle of oaks surrounding their house, had allegedly found a way into his studio, where they pinched his tobacco to line their nests and Willow’s dad claimed their frequent ransacking of his den was the reason for the disruption in his creative flow: how was he supposed to work on his next album when everyone conspired against him? Couldn’t they call a pest control man from the council to deal with the squirrel and pigeon problem?
Alice snorted contemptuously at such clumsy subterfuge and refused to call in the help of the local council. Everyone knew a four-hundred-year-old vampire’s sleep was so deep, only the scent of fresh human blood could wake him, but Willow’s father kept up his lament, until her mother suggested he should book himself into a nursing home, where he’d be in the company of people nearer his own age and could enjoy the peace and quiet afforded to those thinking of nothing but their own tomb. If, on the other hand, he insisted on pest control, she was quite happy to invite a well-known vampire hunter to have a go with a stake. Dylan countered his wife’s helpful suggestions by ordering Willow to phone the local pest control expert without her mother’s knowledge. Alice reacted to her husband’s frustrations by venting her own, keeping up a relentless regime of chores. Willow felt very much like the proverbial piggy in the middle of her feuding parents. She was forced to darn socks, which were past mending and probably hadn’t been worn, since Count Dracula had been in short trousers. Alice ordered her to polish silver candelabras, which hadn’t been used since her Great Aunt Lexy had been asked round for dinner, but hadn’t turned up, because she’d misheard the address and had gone to the British Museum instead, waving her ear trumpet about and demanding to be fed. Irritated by Dylan’s constant vendetta against the pigeons, Alice told Willow to tidy the attic. Quite why an attic had to be spotlessly clean eluded Willow, since they seldom entertained visitors and in any event, guests, who had made it past the Band’s dinner table, had never demanded to be shown up to the attic - they were usually far too busy running for their lives.
Willow was still sweeping out the pigeon mess, when the doorbell rang a couple of hours later. Having seen the van arrive from the window of his studio, Dylan hurried into the main house to intercept the expert on all things vermin, but his wife beat him to it and opened the door to reveal a buxom blonde woman in an overall. She was carrying a small leather case in one hand and a wire cage in the other, claiming to be representative from Rats R Us.
The lady’s smile reassured Dylan they’d called the right girl for the job and, after watching her spraying poison on the affected areas, he declared he’d found her talk about beetle and termite infestation most informative, indeed, rarely had such an unappealing subject graced such attractive lips. Alice in turn suggested the woman’s appearance undoubtedly helped to trap vermin of the male variety, at which point the pest control officer smiled radiantly at Willow’s mum and said Rats R Us aimed to please. Willow and her parents followed the vermin expert around the house, as she visited the attic space to sprinkle poisoned grain into the pigeons’ favourite spots. The vermin lady also squeezed her ample frame behind Dylan’s wine racks in the cellar and deposited small containers with poison on the damp flagstone floor, before fastening the wire cage in front of the hole in the wall that lead out from Dylan’s studio to the oak trees in the garden. Throughout the proceedings Alice followed the expert with a face like thunder and a mop. She wiped the floor, wherever the vermin lady had dared to tread with her muddy shoes. Willow’s dad on the other hand seemed tickled pink at watching an expert at work. The storm broke, when finally, at the sight of the vermin lady bending over to install a number of mouse traps on the porch, Dylan declared how very pleased he was with her efforts and, believing himself unobserved, he ventured to jovially slap the logo on the woman’s rotund rear. He compounded his error of judgement by telling the lady how a well-fitting company uniform greatly helped to promote a professional image. Visibly flattered, the vermin lady straightened herself up and inserted a leaflet into Dylan’s breast pocket, patting his chest, before telling him with a wink that Rats R Us believed in customer service and he really shouldn’t hesitate to call her, if he needed anything else…anything at all. Alice, who had watched the goings on with growing misgivings, stormed out onto the porch with her mop, shoved a couple of bank notes into the woman’s hands, before ushering her down the stairs and back into her van. Alice slammed the vehicle’s door on the lady almost before she’d had time to draw in her legs. Returning to her kitchen, Alice glowered at her husband and declared never had a company been more aptly named.
After this unfortunate incident Willow received strict orders from her mother not to waste any more money on experts. The offending telephone directory had been locked away and the vermin lady’s leather case had been dispatched back to the company. That evening Alice increased her daughter’s daily chores on the grounds that times were hard and families needed to stick together in times of economic crisis. Willow suspected that this was her mother’s way of saying keep your hands off those traps, since she had caught Willow removing the small containers with the poison less than ten minutes after the vermin lady had left. After two weeks of rain-induced family idyll, Willow was positively longing for Headmaster Bakewell’s lame jokes and Mr Pitstop’s geography lessons. Finally, the first day of school arrived and typically, the weather improved instantly. Willow escaped from home half an hour before she really needed to leave for school and enjoyed a pleasant stroll across Farmer Edwards’s meadows. Once or twice she had the odd feeling of being watched, but she shrugged off such thoughts, since they probably originated in her guilt at having accidentally added her favourite red socks to that day’s wash. Personally, she had no opinion on men’s smalls but she had a feeling, her father would take a dim view, when her mother opened the washing machine and presented her husband with once pristine white boxer shorts that had inexplicably blushed to rosy pink. When she arrived at school, Willow joined her friend Darren in the assembly hall. To everyone’s surprise Felicity Henderson’s father had joined a small flock of school governors on the assembly hall stage. The leader of the pack walked up to the microphone and announced Headmaster Bakewell had unexpectedly resigned his position at the school and as a consequence a new headmaster had been appointed. The choice had fallen on a worthy successor, a person with a distinguished academic career, an unblemished personal life and boundless energy for the task ahead.
The assembled pupils’ faces turned towards Miss Witherspoon, their much admired and respected English teacher. Approving murmur followed. In response Miss Witherspoon dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief and closed a slim volume of poems with trembling fingers. The assembly fell silent. A bee buzzed in through the open window and circled the room before settling on the flower display next to the podium. A ray of sunlight fell through the lead glass sky light and painted a fictitious map on their geography teacher’s bald head. Mr Pitstop moved his chair out of the hot sun and scrutinised his sensible walking shoes with a sigh. Willow held her breath and imagined a glorious future where, under Miss Witherspoon’s guidance and patronage, the school would flourish as Britain’s finest place for poetry. She imagined successful poets and novelists flocking to Stinkforth, where they would impart their great wisdom as guest tutors. Willow’s day dream was short lived though. The governor’s speech was drawing to an end. He asked the assembly to put their hands together and give a hearty welcome to their new headmaster, none other than their very own expert on local history, the writer of popular pamphlets on Stinkforth’s colourful past, the very worthy Mr Henderson!
“Not the Prince of Numbness!” Darren groaned. “Please tell me this is a bad dream!”
“Henderson, the defiler of sonnets, the scourge of the publishing world?” Willow was distraught. “Do you know that man actually suggested the founder of Stinkforth’s poetry society was a fraud? According to Numbskull Henderson, Wilhelmina Bathsalt’s collection of sonnets wasn’t a faithful rendition of Stinkforthshire’s glorious past but the romantic ramblings of an old spinster. How dare that man!”
“Shouldn’t Wilhelmina be celebrated as a local heroine?” Darren said cautiously. “I mean, a woman writing and publishing her own books in the 17th century…that’s pretty rare isn’t it?”
“Exactly! Just because his wife bosses him about doesn’t give him the right to rubbish a fine historian like Wilhelmina.” Willow vented her anger by kicking the leg of the chair in front of her. Its occupant turned around and glared at her.
“A word from me and you’ll be spending the rest of term in detention, Willow Band. Daddy will teach you to respect people of REAL distinction.” A red-faced Felicity snapped.
Before anyone could stop him, Mr Henderson took to the microphone and held one of his infamous speeches. A man with ambitions to become the next mayor, Mr Henderson didn’t shy away from getting chummy with big business. He promised the governors their school would soon have ties with local organisations such as the cosmetics research facility, where future pupils would enjoy work experience with the promise of subsequent employment. Quite why any of the assembled pupils should look forward to torturing defenceless rabbits, Mr Henderson didn’t say. Instead, he proposed the re-organisation of the current curriculum, suggesting an emphasis on individual student history projects, which would enhance their knowledge and interest in the county’s past and test their academic research skills.
Trying to quell the unrest following such alarming prospects, Henderson hurried on, saying that school rules would be tightened to ensure a more ordered conduct and far stricter adherence to public decency. At this point in his speech he fixed his gaze on Rosie Buttercup, a buxom student in her final year. Startled by his gimlet eye, Rosie blushed and hastily adjusted her skirt downwards. Somebody giggled and Mr Henderson hurried to drown out the threat of lusty rebellion with a list of rewards for diligent students, which he had devised together with a list of rigorous punishments for wrong doers. When Mr Henderson began to elaborate his plans for the science department, Darren took out his notebook, tore out a page and ripped it to shreds. He handed a couple of strips to Willow. She turned the strips in her hand and identified them as Darren’s failed attempt at doing his geometry homework. Shrugging her shoulders, she popped the paper into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Darren followed her example and fished around in his pockets, finally producing a couple of rubber bands.
“Never has geometry been put to better use!” Darren whispered and handed a rubber band to Willow.
Darren’s first missile shot past the headmaster and hit a school governor’s ear instead. The governor started with an astonished gasp, since he had been caught napping during the headmaster’s speech. Mr Henderson craned his neck to see where the missile had come from, but Darren quickly ducked behind the bulk of Rosie Buttercup who sat in front of him. Unfortunately, Felicity was far more observant than her father. She turned around and snatched the rubber band from Darren before he’d had a chance to hide it in the palm of his hand.
“Wouldn’t do you any harm to listen to Daddy’s speech, Dunce Taylor. For a start, you might learn something about the history of weaponry and the importance of aiming for the right target.”
“Since when did your father know anything about history? He just makes it up as he goes along. The assistant librarian said your Daddy’s pamphlets belong in the fantasy section.”
“Our imbecile librarian should stick to dusting shelves. Daddy’s been editing his work. He’s going to re-publish it with his new findings.”
“Oh, he’s finally going to take back the rubbish he wrote about Olaf Strongarm in the school’s newsletter, is he? Stinkforth’s very own crusader! Your Daddy wouldn’t know a genuine knight and defender of the realm if an arrow hit Daddykins squarely on the nose!” Darren gave Felicity’s chair a well aimed kick, which nearly sent her flying into the row in front.
“You’re just jealous! Didn’t your father scarper off to America before the fraud squad caught up with him, Darren Taylor?” Rubbing her elbow, Felicity pushed back her chair, momentarily trapping Darren’s toe under one of its legs. “Daddy’s in charge now, get used to it!”
Felicity wasn’t destined to enjoy her triumph for long. Darren yelped with pain, prompting Willow to launch her own paper missile. It found its target and for a moment a blob of chewed mess stuck to Mr Henderson’s sweaty forehead, before sliding down and landing with a POP on the sheet of paper containing his speech. This welcome interruption of Mr Henderson’s monologue was greeted with cheers by the audience, whilst the speaker hastily wiped the stain of geometry from his face. Their tall, gangly headmaster provided an excellent target practice and Darren borrowed Willow’s rubber band to release a third missile, which hit Mr Henderson’s nose. This time the audience applauded and Mr Henderson’s face turned purple with rage, prompting Felicity to turn around and slapping Darren’s face. In retaliation, Willow pulled Felicity’s ponytail upwards, forcing its whimpering owner to follow her hair. This enabled Darren to withdraw his foot from under Felicity’s chair. On stage Mr Henderson became aware of his daughter’s involvement in a scuffle. He tried to drown out the ensuing tumult for another couple of minutes by talking loudly about an upcoming visit by a guest speaker from Stinkforth’s very own department store, until the school governors signalled they had a train to catch. One helpful pupil unplugged the microphone and others discovered rubber bands in their own pockets as well as unsatisfactory homework in their bags which could be put to a nobler use. The pupils of Stinkforth’s School for the Gifted were unstinting in their support for their very own crusading knights Willow and Darren, enthusiastically releasing more missiles at the usurper Henderson. He eventually went down in a hail of paper bullets and sought refuge behind the flower display, before crawling away under the cover of Felicity’s schoolbag, which she held out like a shield to protect her father. The governors retreated to the safety of their chauffeur driven cars, whilst Mr Henderson and Felicity fled to the headmaster’s office, pursued by their attentive audience who by that time had burst into a spontaneous song, in which the refrain demanded the immediate return of their champion Mr Bakewell. When the crowd had finally dispersed to their respective class rooms, Willow and Darren were asked to return to the assembly hall, where Mr Pitstop and Miss Witherspoon had instructed the caretaker to clear up the mess. Nothing should remain that would remind their new headmaster of his first failure and tactical retreat.
Miss Witherspoon had been a teacher for a very long time and knew headmasters’ waters ran deep. Willow sensed her teacher’s disappointment at having once again been overlooked for the position of heading the school, her defeat being particularly hard to accept because the other candidate was so inferior to Miss Witherspoon’s own knowledge and academic achievement. Mr Pitstop was sharing a sympathetic cup of tea with her, when Willow and Darren entered. Miss Witherspoon peered over her glasses at the two unrepentant miscreants and handed them each a piece of paper.
“Under the circumstances Mr Pitstop and I feel it would be advisable, if the two of you headed off to the local library and volunteered for the very first of Mr Henderson’s local history projects. You may call it excessive punishment if you wish, but we prefer to call it a peace offering. Now leave before he catches up with you.”
Willow was grateful to escape Miss Witherspoon’s sad gaze. She felt uncomfortable having added to her favourite teacher’s distress, but couldn’t help noticing Mr Pitstop’s mischievous smile, when he asked Darren if his view of geometry had improved since they last spoke about the subject.
“He’s planning his own version of hackling at the next teachers’ meeting, mark my words. Mr Pitstop is Stinkforthshire’s entry for the national darts championships. That man knows how to throw a mean pencil!” Darren trotted next to her on their way to the High Street.
“What on earth possessed Mr Bakewell to give up his job so suddenly? I thought he loved it here.” Willow took two steps at once when they’d reached the stairs leading up to the library.
“He’s got a little boy, hasn’t he?” Darren grinned. “Maybe Stinkforth’s School for the Gifted isn’t good enough for the little boy genius and they’re moving away?”
They groaned when they read through the assignment Miss Witherspoon and Mr Pitstop had set for them. Darren’s project involved reading Wilhelmina Bathsalt’s epic A Knight’s Tail – Stinkforth’s Answer to the Holy Grail. He had to write a five thousand word essay on the possibility that such a sacred relic actually existed. Willow considered herself being let off lightly at first. Her project had been set by Mr Pitstop, who had asked her to find the origin of Stinkforthshire’s most illustrious place names reputedly dating back to the days of Viking invaders. However, as soon as Willow had opened a book on the first Viking landings in Britain, she realised how time consuming and difficult Mr Pitstop’s task really was. She loathed geography almost as much as Darren hated reading poetry. They spent the remainder of the day cursing Mr Henderson’s ascent to power and Felicity’s subsequent reign of glee. Late in the afternoon Willow left Darren to pick up his bicycle from the school car park. He cycled home to Lower Stinkforth, whilst she decided to look in on Eddie before returning home. She knew he’d enjoy hearing of Mr Henderson’s first day as headmaster. Taking the path past Mr Edwards’s old barn, she was about to turn into the lane leading up to Eddie’s house, when she heard Mrs Edwards, the farmer’s wife, call after her.
“Wait up, Willow. Here, take ‘em home to your mother.” Mrs Edwards handed her a basket with freshly laid eggs. ”You haven’t seen anyone loiterin’ about the place, have you, dear?”
“No, I haven’t seen anyone. Is anything amiss?”
“Well, nothin’s amiss, really. It’s just…somebody’s been usin’ our barn. Candles, blankets...oh, it’s probably just kids.” Mrs Edwards shook her head. “If you see anyone, you’ll let me know, won’t you? Youngsters can be so careless; they might set fire to the place. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Willow looked into the Mrs Edwards’s rosy face and wondered. There was genuine worry there despite her assertion is was just kids. She watched Mrs Edwards climb on her bicycle and ride away, wobbling dangerously close past the muddy ditch. Willow scrutinised the most obvious hiding places in the immediate neighbourhood. She found nothing but green meadows, flowering hedgerows, happy sheep and blue sky, so she dismissed the idea of intruders as the stuff of sensationalist newspapers and Mrs Edward’s overwrought imagination. Still, she had felt herself being watched again ever since she had left Darren in the High Street. The image of pink boxer shorts suddenly popped into her mind and she giggled. If Dad doesn’t want to keep his girlie smalls, Eddie could do with some new underwear! She hastened up the lane to have tea with Eddie and to tell him about the impending Henderson reign of terror. When she had disappeared from view, a man stepped out from behind the hawthorn hedge and lit a cigarette. He sucked thoughtfully on the filter, until the smoke snaked up into the air, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. A grin spread over his fat face, as he used the tip of the knife to clean his fingernails.
With the cigarette clamped firmly between his lips, he marched up the lane following Willow’s tracks in the mud.
Willow had to knock a couple of times before Eddie came to the door. He peered through the small glass pane and, upon recognising her, quickly opened the door. He beckoned her to enter and shut the door immediately, making sure he locked and bolted the door again after her. She followed him into the kitchen, wondering about this new security measure introduced by a man, who’d spend the last thirty years locked up and now had the chance to enjoy open doors. Eddie’s house contained nothing of value, having been looted a long time ago, when he had first been sent to prison. In the kitchen she fell into the lumpy settee and gratefully took the mug of hot chocolate, which he held out to her. The kitchen table was littered with letters, old photographs, documents and dog-eared envelopes. Eddie looked tired, like a man who had spent the night hunched over the contents of a dusty cardboard box, which sat on a chair by the fire. She picked up a crumpled envelope and cast a quizzical look at her friend.
“Memories…ghosts.” Eddie said with a nod at the mess on the table. “Have been tryin’ to remember stuff. You forget so much when you’re inside.”
Willow turned over the envelope in her hand and tried to decipher the logo next to the stamp. Her Majesty’s Prison Service she mouthed silently before putting the envelope back on the table.
“My former prison guard is bein’ put out to pasture. The probation officer likes to keep me informed.” Eddie said in response to her unspoken question. “Seems our Mr Bolt is thinkin’ of retirin’ to Stinkforthshire.”
Something in Eddie’s voice caught Willow’s imagination and she pictured him being locked in at the beginning of every new day. After a short round in the exercise yard, a mug of weak tea and a bowl of watery porridge, Eddie had spent his days and nights in a small grey cell, drawing and painting in solitude. For thirty years he had imagined the fresh green leaves of spring, the dusty ochre roads in summer, the red, brown and yellow trees in autumn and the bleakness of the fields in winter. The other prisoners had accepted him as their substitute grandfather, whose harmless eccentricities were tolerated by the long-term inmates and whose benign counsel was sought by the new arrivals.
“What was it like…if you don’t mind me asking you?” Willow got up and put another log on the fire, when she noticed Eddie was shivering.
“Oh, you know…the first ten years it’s all boredom…hunger…followed by more boredom.” Eddie poured out more hot chocolate for her. “The next ten years you start to settle in. The final ten years you’ve forgotten what the outside world looks like, well…almost. Kept picturin’ this hearth, a jolly fire, my warm slippers –“
“Did the guards treat you well?” Willow interrupted.
Eddie hesitated. “Mostly…there was this one guy…he used to say, they should have locked me up and thrown away the key -”
Eddie’s voice trailed off and he stared morosely into the fire. Sensing his reluctance to talk, Willow changed the subject and told him about her first day back at school. Eddie soon cheered up laughing at Mr Henderson’s first-hand experience of a tough audience. They had digressed to discussing Willow’s entry for her school’s poetry competition and Willow was just telling Eddie about her miserable time at vampire infant school in South East London, when they were startled by a short, sharp rap at the front door. Eddie jumped up like a frightened deer and motioned her to get out of sight. Surprised, she obeyed and crouched down behind the settee.
The knocking became more urgent, more decided and whoever the visitor was, he certainly wasn’t in a hurry to leave. Willow could hear him move away from the front door and walk around the house, until he had reached the spot in front of the kitchen window. He tapped the window sharply and called out for Eddie to open up. Eddie made no reply; instead he slid unseen into the larder, leaving the door open by a chink, so he could keep an eye on the visitor outside. From Willow’s hiding place she caught a glimpse
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: Maria Thermann
Images: Maria Thermann
Editing/Proofreading: Maria Thermann
Translation: Maria Thermann
Publication Date: 06-25-2014
All Rights Reserved
With Gratitude and Affection To W. Who loved me And to A. Who did not.