Welcome to the world of Granny Battle and Ellis! I decided to start this new section on my blog which I’ll add new chapters to as and when I write them, so if you want to read the whole thing without have to scroll through my waffle, you can!
NB: This is pretty raw and un-edited – there are bits that will be tweaked, cut, put back in, tweaked, totally changed, thrown in the bin in disgust, retrieved from the bin and tweaked… I think you get the picture!
When Ellis was four years old, he lost his dad. That was how his mum – and the majority of other grown-ups – put it nowadays anyway. And recently, just within the last few weeks or so, he’d noticed that he was putting it like that too. He thought maybe it was because he was growing up (he was ten now, after all), but wasn’t sure. Sometimes when he thought about it, he felt a bit weird. And sometimes, just after he’d thought about it, he’d jump a little – like he’d seen something flicker, right on the edges of his vision. Maybe that was another part of this growing up business too.
But he wasn’t sure.
* * *
Ellis and his mum lived on the outskirts of a small village that clustered around a small river that squeezed its way through a small valley that was surrounded by a rather disappointingly small wood. But it did have the benefit of a disused railway line running through it. And that meant a disused tunnel (strictly out of bounds of course), a disused, arched brick bridge over the road just up from his house (which was also strictly out of bounds), and a disused station which had been turned into a house (and was also strictly out of bounds). He spent a lot of time in and around the tunnel, and on and around the bridge (which was naturally the thing to do, seeing as they were both strictly out of bounds) but unfortunately he’d never been able to explore the old station due to the presence of a bonkers old woman who lived in the station-that-was-now-a-house. Personally he’d never seen her, but everyone said she was bonkers so he assumed it must be true.
In fact, he was walking along the old railway track now, in between the bridge and the station, flicking at weeds with a stick and taking care not to catch his feet in the brambles that snaked between the old sleepers and would wrap themselves round your ankles sending you flat on your face if you didn’t look where you were going.
His lost dad suddenly popped into his head, and a particularly cunning bramble looped itself around his ankle. He fell flat on his face.
…and thought ‘Crackleberries!’
He sat up and looked quickly around – partly to make sure no-one had seen him trip over, and partly because that weird flickery thing had happened again. There was no-one, and nothing around.
Standing up and dusting himself off, he looked at where he’d fallen. It had sounded like he’d landed on something crackly – which was probably why that stupid word had popped into his head – but all he could see was the usual tangle of brambles, weeds and grass. Something flickered at the edge of his vision again and turning quickly he found himself staring at a pair of unblinking orange eyes, surrounded by tufty looking orange fur that had definitely seen better days. Ellis used up one his best swear words and nearly fell over again as he took a step backwards in fright.
The cat didn’t move.
It didn’t even blink.
It just stared back at him.
It was sitting on a sort of stone ledge, more or less at eye level, and as he looked at it more closely he realised it was the edge of the old platform. Which meant he’d come further than he thought. Which meant…
He looked up a bit more and saw a battered old white fence, and behind that he saw the station-that-was-now-a-house. Where the bonkers old woman lived.
‘Oh-oh…’ he said to himself, and his eyes were drawn back to the cat, which didn’t appear to have moved a muscle and was still staring at him flatly.
He began to feel a bit uncomfortable, so he stared hard back at it and said that thing that everyone says to sudden, strange, starey cats. He said,
In fact he said it so loudly and explosively that he saw the cat’s whiskers bend slightly in the unexpected breeze of the word.
The cat blinked.
And a split second later it was a spikey, be-fanged, flat-eared, slit-eyed face of hiss, and Ellis did fall over backwards this time, especially when the jet of searing blue flame narrowly missed taking his left ear off.
Ellis opened his eyes, eased himself up on his elbows, and nearly screamed. A massive eyeball filled his vision, then receded slightly until it was two massive eyeballs surrounded by the loudest and ugliest pair of glasses he’d ever seen. He shuffled backwards on his bottom, stopping exactly on a large thistle. He opened his mouth to scream again, and below the loud and ugly glasses a hole appeared and a scratchy voice said,
‘Oh, for goodness sake – stop being such a big girl and get up.’
He was so surprised he got up, rubbing his bottom where the thistle had got him.
Standing in front of him was a short, dumpy old lady. She could have been your common or garden dumpy old lady, were it not for the fact that she was a) as previously mentioned, sporting the loudest and ugliest pair of glasses he’d ever seen, b) wearing what looked like chain-mail gloves that reached over her elbows, and c) was gripping in her left hand a small, orange dragon by the scruff of its neck. It dangled slackly, wearing a distinct expression of embarrassment.
She looked him up and down, and shook her head, tutting loudly.
‘Come on then, follow me,’ she said peevishly, ‘We can’t send you home looking like that can we?’
‘Like what?‘ Ellis thought to himself, still being a bit too stunned to vocalise.
‘Like that,’ the old lady said, waving her free hand vaguely in the direction of his left shoulder.
He suddenly became aware of the burny smell that had been tickling his nostrils, and twisted his head to look at his shoulder. There was a rather large, singed hole in his t-shirt, and reaching up to the side of his head, he found that where his hair had been been there was now a crunchy patch of stubble.
Then he realised what had just happened.
‘Oh, it’s not hard,’ the old lady said, ‘and no, you didn’t,’ as Ellis thought ‘How the… how did she… Did I say that out loud after all?’
By the time Ellis had recovered himself enough to remember to blink, the old lady had scrambled up onto the old platform and was stomping towards a gate in the battered old white fence, the orange dragon swinging from one hand, the other hand impatiently indicating him to follow.
Ellis blinked again, then for want of anything else to do, and still rubbing his thistled bottom, he heaved himself up onto the platform and followed.
The old station building looked more like a small cottage than a station, except for the carved wooden decorations around the roof, and a sign on the wall that was so faded and peeling he couldn’t read it. Against the wall were a couple of benches and an old porter’s trolley, crammed with plantpots which seemed to contain nothing but dead twigs and weeds. The door stood open, and as Ellis stepped cautiously inside, a few things happened rather quickly.
First he noticed a smell, like a mixture of old, damp socks, smelly feet and soggy cabbage.
Next he heard the old lady shouting something that sounded like ‘Aaaaargyalittlebugger!’
Then a large frying pan flew over his head and clanged comically on the doorstep behind him.
Finally, the small orange dragon, which appeared to have somehow attached itself to the old lady’s head, suddenly shot off and landed skittishly on the floor in front of him, wheezing hard.
Ellis backed away and stepped in something that just felt… wrong.
‘Now then,’ said the old lady, patting her hair back into a slightly more respectable mess, ‘don’t move. You’ve just trodden in the Odour Eater I was making. Just hold still – once it works out that your feet don’t smell, it’ll loosen its grip. Er – your feet don’t smell, do they?’
Ellis shut his eyes tight and said ‘No!’ very quietly. Whatever he’d stepped in was slithering around his ankles, exploring inside his trainers and investigating between his toes. Suddenly it stopped slithering and started to quiver.
‘Oh dear,’ the old lady said, ‘I thought you said you didn’t have smelly feet?’
‘I don’t!’ squeaked Ellis. The quivering got faster and faster, then suddenly it stopped, and whatever it was slithered off his feet. Ellis opened his eyes and looked down. He was standing in the middle of a splat of gloopy brown goo. He looked up at the old lady in horror.
‘Come on, come on,’ she said, ‘You’re all right now, obviously just a borderline case. I’d do something about that though, before it gets any worse. Step off it, quick now!’
Ellis stepped out the splat as quickly as he could and ventured further into the kitchen, edging around the small orange dragon, which was now looking distinctly furry again and was licking its shoulder catishly.
The old lady put the frying pan down on the table, crossed her arms, and stared hard at him. ‘You’re the boy from number 23,’ she stated, ‘Ellis. You live with your mum, and you lost your dad when you were four-and-quarter. Close your mouth and nod.’
Ellis closed his mouth and nodded. ‘What was going on?!‘, he thought?
‘I’ll get to that,’ said the old lady dismissively. ‘I’m Granny Battle.’ She stuck her hand out suddenly and Ellis jumped. Then, as she seemed to expect him to shake it, he did, carefully.
‘I’m a slooth,’ said Granny Battle.
‘Don’t you mean a sleuth?’ asked Ellis, hearing the spelling mistake.
‘No,’ said Granny Battle, ‘Not a sleuth, a slooth. There’s a very big difference.’
‘It’s all to do with seeing, y’see,’ said Granny Battle over her shoulder, stirring the contents of the frying pan vigourously. She’d scooped the gloopy brown goo from the floor back into the pan, then scraped a few evil-looking greenish-brown berries from the back of Ellis’ pants and the bottom of shoes, and added them to the mixture. ‘Crackleberries,’ she’d said, ‘can’t waste ‘em. You stomped right through my crop.’
Ellis was sitting at the kitchen table feeling odd. He couldn’t stop sneaking glances at his t-shirt which was now minus one singed hole, and rubbing the hair on the side of his head that a few minutes ago had been stubble, and was now the normal tangle. He wasn’t quite sure how she’d done it. Actually, he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to know how she’d done it. The side of his head felt… twinkly, for want of a better word – and he was very aware that twinkly wasn’t a good word for a boy. But that’s definitely how it felt.
Granny Battle gave the frying pan a vigorous shake, then turned the heat down and sat down at the table opposite him.
‘Seeing is what I does, and that’s what makes me a slooth.’ She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. ‘I’ve been watching you, Ellis, since you were a toddler. You’ve got a bit of the see about you. You take after your dad.’
Ellis suddenly and felt himself going red, and a little surge of anger made his head feel cloudy.
‘What do you know about my dad?!’ he said hotly.
Granny leaned forward and rested her crossed arms on the table. ‘I knows lots. I knows he’s lost. And I knows where he is.’ She stuck her finger in her ear and wiggled it, then removed it and examined the tip. ‘I just don’t knows yet how to find him.’
Ellis was so shocked he forgot to be shocked when Granny wiped the tip of her finger on her cardigan.
‘But… lost is… lost means… I mean…. He’s…’ he struggled to get the word out. He could feel it, at the back of his mind, but he just couldn’t say it.
Granny leaned back in her chair, eyeing him smugly.
‘Y’see,’ she said, ‘You can’t say it, ‘cos you knows it’s not true. That’s the seeing in you, that is.’
Ellis stared at her, not knowing whether to laugh, cry, shout, scream or run away. Granny sighed.
‘Look, any of those would be expected, but I think the best thing would be if you stayed sat sitting there for a bit longer, and let me show you something about seeing. All right?’ She heaved herself up from the chair, bent down, picked up the orange cat, which was now looking like a perfectly normal – if slightly ravaged and battle-weary – orange cat, and plonked it down in the middle of the kitchen table.
‘Right then,’ she said to Ellis, who had momentarily forgotten his confusion and was leaning back in his chair warily and eying the cat with distrust.
‘See.’ said Granny Battle.
‘What?!’ he said, looking at her as if she was bonkers. Which, he reminded himself, everyone said she was and he was inclined to agree.
‘See,’ she repeated, ‘Have a good old stare – really hard. See what’s really there.’
Ellis looked back at the cat, then at Granny Battle, then back at the cat. Then he gave a little shrug and stared angrily at the cat. It glanced at him briefly, then looked away and began to wash its paws.
‘Not like that,’ said Granny, ‘Don’t glare, that won’t work. Just… look at it!’
Ellis made that little sound that means ‘What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? You’re bonkers! Why don’t I just go home?’ then, seeing Granny’s grin, felt rather uncomfortable so tried to relax in his chair and just look at the cat.
After a few seconds it stopped washing its paws and looked back at him.
He looked back harder.
It stared back at him flatly, flicked one ear, and began to look rather uncomfortable.
‘Don’t blink,’ said Granny Battle, who’d stood up and was watching them both carefully.
Ellis felt his eyes starting to water and fought the urge to blink, which was even stronger now after what Granny had just said. He felt the beginnings of a sneeze starting high up in his nose.
‘I think I’m going to sneeze,’ he said in a strained voice.
‘Don’t do that, you’ll make him jump!’ said Granny quickly. Ellis was aware of her backing away slightly, which was a bit worrying. He concentrated on not blinking and tried to force the sneezey feeling, which had crept nearer the end of his nose, back up. He could barely see the cat now for the tears in his eyes.
In the split second his eyes closed, he heard the strangest, most un-catlike noise from the table in front of him, a crash from the other side of the kitchen which sounded rather like Granny falling over a chair, and something began to smell burney.
He opened his eyes and saw Granny picking herself up off the floor and trying to untangle herself from a chair. One of her trouser legs was smouldering, and she patted it out with a hasty oven-glove.
‘Well,’ she said brightly, ‘Well. I was right about the sneeze wasn’t I?’ She patted out another smoulder on her trouser leg, which had re-ignited, and waved the oven glove at the table.
The dragon was hunched rather self-consciously in the middle of the table in a small puddle of dragon-wee. It looked up at Ellis apologetically and blinked.
He blinked back, and was only mildly surprised to find it was still there when his eyes opened again.
A slow, slightly mad, grin began to spread across his face, and the dragon gave a genteel, smokey, hiccup then wrinkled its snout in what Ellis decided could only be a faintly embarrassed smile.
Ellis cupped his hands around the steaming mug on the table in front of him. He’d been a bit wary about accepting a drink from someone who fried odour eaters, but he had to admit to himself it tasted good. Sort of like the best, sweetest cup of tea in the world but with essence of bubblegum and a toffee aftertaste. He took another sip, and looked carefully down at his lap where the small orange dragon was nestled; its eyes were closed, and it was quietly snoring squeakily. Every now and then a pale grey puff of smoke drifted out the corner of its mouth. Ellis had discovered that if he looked at it suddenly without thinking, it looked distinctly furry. But if he concentrated and looked at it a bit more slowly, it was 100% dragon.
‘He likes you,’ said Granny Battle approvingly, taking a noisy slurp from her mug. Whatever she was drinking was producing delicate purple steam.
Ellis felt rather pleased with himself, and gave the dragon a tentative tickle behind its ear. It creaked contentedly. He had a million and one questions he needed answering, and was pretty sure Granny Battle had already heard him thinking them. He picked one at random to vocalise.
‘So why cats?’ he asked.
‘Well, I would have thought that was obvious,’ she replied, blowing on her mug and sending little purple steam-rings across the table.
‘Er, no,’ he replied. Granny gave a little hmph.
‘Oh. Well, it’s the heat.’
‘Heat?’ Ellis looked confused. ‘I don’t get it,’ he said.
‘Well. You sees… it’s…’ Granny scrunched up her nose searching for the right way to explain things. ‘You sees, humans were the best at making themselves warm nests. Or houses or whatever you want to call them. Dragons need as much heat as possible – they hate the cold. They seed the nice warm nests we was making in Way Back When, so tried to muscle in on them.’ She took another noisy slurp from her mug, and smothered a burp. ‘It didn’t work too well at first, ‘cos a spikey, spiney dragon don’t exactly tempt you to welcome it into your home does it? They used to have rather a hard time – I means, think of St. George! So the dragons, see, they worked out how to project this… this… fluffiness,’ she screwed up her mouth as if the word had tasted bad. ‘Anyway, that made them a lot more appealing. People saw them and went, ‘Aw, how cute!’ and started taking them into their nice warm homes. Of course, it was the Egyptian dragons that sussed it first, they were real experts. Took it a bit too far though, if you want my opinion.’
Ellis was silent. He kept getting little bursts of swimmy unrealism. He was sitting at the kitchen table in the bonkers old lady’s – he corrected himself – Granny Battle’s house. They were discussing dragons. Cats were dragons. He’d had his t-shirt singed and half his hair burnt to a frazzle. Now his shirt and hair were back to normal after she’d done something. She cooked odour eaters in a frying pan. He’d trodden in one. She said she was a slooth, and she said that she knew where his dad was.
He clenched his first under the table until he felt his fingernails dig painfully into his palm, just to remind himself that this was real.
Granny Battle continued.
‘Course, they got it made, really. And they make a fortune out of us.’
‘What?’ asked Ellis, ‘Money fortune? How do they do that?!’
‘Weeeeeeeell, just think of all the stuff we buy them!’ Granny said, ‘The food, the silly fluffy toys, daft little baskets, furry things to hang over radiators, collars with sparkles on! You don’t think those things are actually dreamed up and made by us do you?!’ She sniffed, and muttered, ‘Can’t abide fluffiness in any shape or form. Or sparkles. Especially not sparkles.’
Ellis was getting a bit overloaded. He just stared blankly at her. She sighed.
‘Look, dragons need a hoard, right? Forget about all this ‘sleeping on the hoard’ business, that’s rubbish. They have banks, just like us. Always have had. They make – or get made – all that stuff, and we buy it in cartloads.’
‘But – how – I don’t understand!’ Ellis said, feeling as if his brain was about to implode, ‘We don’t buy that stuff from cats! Or dragons! We buy it in shops… and it must have come from a… a… human to get in the shops, surely?! There can’t be a factory somewhere full of cats – dragons – whatever – making stuff for cats, can there?’
‘Not exactly,’ said Granny Battle leaning back in her chair and folding her arms. ‘But sort of.’
A noise like a foghorn made Ellis jump. Granny Battle unfolded her arms and fumbled around in a trouser pocket, finally pulling out a slim, black mobile phone. She squinted at the screen, then jabbed at it with her finger. The sound stopped.
Ellis was impressed. He’d never seen an old person with a phone like that. He was also a bit jealous – it looked like the very latest model, much sleeker than his which, was now a few years old. Granny was still dabbing away at the screen and muttering to herself, and Ellis peered harder at the back of the phone. Actually, it looked different. He could just make out what looked like more lenses than there should be, and right in the middle was something that looked like a small hole.
Granny looked up and noticed him staring.
‘It’s got a few tweaks,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Right then, we just about have time. Get yours out, there’s a few Apps you’ll need to download, then we’ll be off.’
Ellis decided to ignore the “be off” bit for the time being – then realised he should probably also ignore the fact that she not only knew he had a phone, but she also appeared to know what sort of phone he had. He was much more interested in the Apps she was talking about – after all the strange things that had been going on, he reckoned they’d be something rather cool. Lifting the dragon carefully off his knee, he stood up and placed it gently on the chair, where it fizzed softly to itself. Then, digging his phone out his bag he went round to Granny’s side of the table. She held her hand out for the phone and with a milli-second of hesitation, he passed it to her.
‘What are the Apps?’ he asked, as she deftly flicked open his settings and connected to a wireless network called “BuggerOffAndGetYourOwn“. Ellis smothered a smirk.
‘A map, and some other stuff you might need,’ she said and launched his internet browser, typing in a strange looking address. The screen went momentarily dark, then an animated orange dragon appeared on the screen. Little jets of flame shot out its mouth, and curled and twisted to form six menu options on the left hand side, in flaming orange text.
‘Sick!’ said Ellis, leaning forwards to try and make out the words.
Granny looked smug, and clicked on the bottom menu item which read, rather disappointingly, “Downlaods“. Ellis pretended not to notice the typo, although he thought he saw Granny stiffen slightly as he thought this. A new screen appeared with a long list of strange looking words, each with a tick box next to them. She scrolled quickly down the list, ticking boxes here and there.
‘Er, I don’t have much space left on it,’ said Ellis as she continued scrolling and clicking.
‘S’allright,’ said Granny, ‘they’ll make room for themselves.’
Ellis looked worried. ‘They’re not going to overwrite anything are they?’
‘No,’ said Granny, ‘As I just said – they’ll make room for themselves.’ She reached the bottom of the list, tapped on the word “install” and the screen changed again to a little spinning dragon, chasing its tail. A progress bar at the bottom of the screen zipped across at lightening speed, then the screen changed back to the main menu. Granny closed the browser and checked the time.
‘Right,’ she said passing him the phone and heaving herself up, ‘Time to go!’
Ellis took the phone and looked at the screen eagerly. There was a new folder called “Battle Stations” on his homescreen. His finger hovered towards it.
‘Not yet, not yet,’ said Granny who was doing a circuit of the kitchen, stuffing random things into a large, battered rucksack, ‘I’ll show you on the train.’
Ellis reluctantly stuffed his phone back in his pocket/bag, then said ‘ – ‘ as Granny replied ‘The next train! Come on, chop chop!’ and swinging her bulging racksack over one shoulder she bustled out the kitchen, pausing only briefly to grab the small orange dragon, who was sitting expectantly by the back door.
Ellis shrugged, slung his own bag over his shoulder, and followed her out.
Granny was already halfway down the garden path and bustling fast as Ellis shut the door behind him. The orange dragon had now taken up residence around her shoulders like a spikey scarf, although admittedly most scarfs tended not to have scales or to puff wisps of smoke from one end. He jogged down the path and caught up with her as she opened the battered, creaky gate. The sun was dipping down behind the trees in front of them, and everything was beginning to look decidedly dusky.
Granny stopped on the old platform and checked her watch.
‘Right,’ she said, ‘Pay attention now, I don’t want any silliness – there isn’t another train for two hours and we have stuff to do.’ She hutched her bag up a bit and the dragon snuffled and untangled his tail from the strap.
‘One. Don’t loose sight of the dragon. Two. When I say NOW -‘ she said this rather loudly and Ellis jumped – ‘. shut your eyes tight. Three. When I say NOW again -‘ Ellis was ready for that one – ‘open your eyes again and follow me. Quickly. Repeat that back.’
Ellis checked the instructions off on his fingers, ‘One, keep looking at the dragon, two, shut eyes, three, open -‘
‘NOW!’ yelled Granny suddenly. In panic Ellis looked quickly to the dragon then closed his eyes tightly.
For a split second nothing happened, then everything happened at once.
The still evening erupted into sound, as if he’d accidently hit play on his MP3 player, with his headphones on and volume on maximum. The noise was deafening – screeches, banging, and an ear-splitting hiss, and at the same time he felt as if he was suddenly in the middle of a huge cloud of hot, choking, smoke.
His instant thought was that the dragon must have exploded, and forgetting Granny’s instructions he opened his eyes.
The world was instantly wrong. He was standing on the disused, mossy, platform looking at the trees opposite, with the rustle and tweet of a dusky summer’s evening all around him, but at the same time he was standing on a dark, crowded platform, and a massive, hissing, screeching, clanking, steam train was rolling by inches from his face.
He did the only thing he could be expected to do under these circumstances, which was to yell loudly, stagger backwards, and fall over.
‘You bloody idiot!’ he heard Granny yell, ‘I hadn’t said the second now!’
He felt himself being hauled up by his rucksack, and he squeezed his eyes tight shut in an attempt to stop his brain exploding.
‘It’s a bit late now,’ Granny muttered, pushing him in front of her and holding him tight by the shoulders, ‘Step forward and up, NOW!’
He did as he was told, and felt a solid step under his feet – and at the same time nothing at all. He nearly fell over backwards again and Granny pushed him from behind. Then he felt her pull him sideways, and he rebounded between what felt like people and seats – and also nothing – then she pushed him down onto what felt like a bench. And also thin air.
Granny was panting, and he felt her squeeze down beside him. His rucksack was pushing him forwards on the seat but he daredn’t move, and his eyes were squeezed so tightly shut that multi-coloured fireworks were exploding on the backs of his eyelids.
‘Okay,’ said Granny a little breathlessly. ‘Okay. Okay. We’re here. Could have been easier if you hadn’t panicked, but here we are. Okay.’ She exhaled noisily.
Ellis sat very still concentrating on his personal firework display.
‘Okay,’ said Granny again, and he felt her rumagging around next to him. Then he felt something warm breathing on his face, and tried to lean back but was hampered by his rucksack.
‘Right, now then,’ said Granny, ‘Listen carefully, and this time do EXACTLY what I say. Okay?’
Ellis gave a tiny nod.
‘Good. Now. I’m holding the dragon right in front of you. What am I holding?’
‘Dragon,’ said Ellis, trying to move his mouth as little as possible.
‘Not a cat?’ asked Granny.
Ellis shook his head quickly.
‘Are you sure?’
Ellis nodded again with a tiny bit of irration.
‘Okay,’ said Granny, ‘When I say NOW, picture the dragon in your head, then open your eyes and see it. NOW!’
Ellis wasn’t expecting the now to happen quite so quickly and for a second his mind completely failed to find a picture of a dragon. He saw a cat – no, she said not a cat! – then a succession of completely irrelevant objects including for some reason a fridge which had long scaley arms that were waving at him, then finally as he concentrated harder than he’d ever concentrated in his life, he saw the dragon as it had looked on the kitchen table, crinkling its snout in a dragony smile.
He opened his eyes.
A pair of large, slightly smoking, orange nostrils filled his vision.
‘His name’s Eronimous Sinjun Fluffy-Paws Battleford III, by the way,’ said Granny, lowering the dragon slightly, ‘but I just call him Ian for short. It’s about time you were properly introduced.’ Ellis refocused on the dragon, raising an eyebrow and opening his mouth to say ‘Fluffy-Paws?!’, but catching Granny’s defiant eye he changed his mind. He also decided not to pick up on her mis-spelling of St John.
‘Hello Ian,’ he said rather weakly, ‘I didn’t recognise you there for a minute.’ Ian looked up at him steadily and blinked slowly, then stretched out a scaley, be-clawed front leg.
‘Aw, good boy, he wants to shake hands,’ said Granny, ‘Quickly, before he changes his mind.’ Ellis carefully took hold of the proffered foot and shook it gingerly. The scales felt surprisingly soft. Ian wriggled in Granny’s arms and she put him down in Ellis’ lap, where he curled up with his nose tucked under his tail and promptly went to sleep.
Granny was rustling around in her bag, so Ellis took a moment to look carefully around, glancing back to Ian every few seconds to make sure he could still see him. The memory of seeing, feeling and hearing two places at once was still making him feel a little queasy, and he didn’t want to risk it happening again. ‘As long as I can see Ian properly,’ he told himself, ‘I’ll be alright.’
The train carriage he was in was nothing at all like the ones he’d been in occasionally with his mum. This one looked more like one of the ones he’d seen in the big museum she’d taken him to once – all varnished wood, mirrors, and lights with delicate little frilly lampshades mounted on the walls. They were in a compartment with a door at each side, and two long benches faced each other with shiny steel luggage racks mounted above them.
Opposite him sat a young family – mum, dad and five children, the smallest of which was sitting on his dad’s lap with his short furry legs sticking straight out, as he stared intently at Ellis and picked his long stripey nose.
‘Um, Granny…’ whispered Ellis out the corner of his mouth.
‘Of course they’re badgers,’ said Granny, still rummaging in her bag. Then she triumphantly brandished a rather squashed foil wrapped package. ‘Aha! Sandwich?’
Ellis looked back at the little badger boy, who was now inspecting the findings on the end of his paw with interest.
‘The thing is,’ said Granny, digging him in the ribs with a pointy elbow and passing him a surprisingly dainty-looking sandwich, ‘you’ll find things a little bit odd at first, but once you get used to it you won’t think twice about it.’ She devoured her sandwich in one bite and recovered another from the foil.
‘It makef fense when you fink about ift,’ she said chewily, then she stopped mid-mastication, pulled a face and thought for a second or two. She swallowed. ‘Probably best tho if you don’t try and think about it too much at the moment though, it’s a bit too early.’
Ellis wished she hadn’t said that – it was like the sneeze all over again. He looked down and stared hard at Ian for a few seconds to make sure he was still there.
Then he took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. ‘Granny?’ He asked carefully, trying to make sure that what he was going to say next was as clear in mind as possible. Granny opened her mouth, peered at him, then shut it again. Giving a little nod, she said, ‘Yes Ellis?’ Ellis relaxed slightly and continued, ‘Would you mind very much not answering before I’ve asked stuff? It’s just that it makes me feel dizzy.’ He looked at Granny and felt a bit silly, knowing that she’d already known what he’d being going to ask.
Granny smiled, her eyes crinkling behind her massive glasses. ‘Of course, Ellis,’ she said, ‘I do sometimes forget it must be a bit confusing. I’ll just save it for special occasions and emergencies, shall I?’ Ellis nodded gratefully and took a bite of his sandwich. It was cheese and onion, his favourite, and tasted extremely comforting. He chewed slowly, trying to decide how to phrase his next question, as Granny started to hum impatiently next to him. He swallowed.
‘So, um, what’s going on? Where are we? Where are we going? How are we going? Can we get back?’ he paused and took a breath, ‘and what’s that smell?!’ he finished, wrinkling up his nose at a particularly pungent aroma that had just appeared out of nowhere.
Granny leaned towards him and sniffed.
‘It’s just Ian,’ she said, ‘he does that sometimes in his sleep.’ She wafted the air around the snoozing dragon with both hands to try and disperse the smell and shrugged apologetically at the badger family opposite as they began to cover their noses with their paws.
‘Best way to answer the rest of your questions,’ she said turning back to Ellis, ‘would be for you to have a look at your phone.’
Ellis looked blank for a second, then remembered the app Granny had installed for him back in the kitchen, which now felt like weeks ago. He shrugged off his rucksack, being careful not to disturb Ian, dug his phone out and switched it on. Then he tapped on the Battle Stations icon, scrolled through the menu options and tapped on Map.
At first glance it looked just like his normal map app, except that there were three blobs – one blue, one green, and a small orange one – drifting up the screen. He realised they must be himself, Granny and Ian.
‘Good boy,’ said Granny approvingly, ‘Keep looking.’
According to the map, they were travelling through a dense forest. Except there weren’t any dense forests for miles and miles from where he lived – there was just the disappointingly small wood. He looked at the screen more closely, and noticed the little flap at the bottom right corner – on his phone when he tapped that, he could change map views. He tapped on it, and was given the option of Standard, Hybrid, Satellite and something called “Trigonal“. He tapped Trigonal, and the map quickly redrew. He stared at it. It was still showing them as moving through a forest, but at the same time, like a tracing-paper overlay, he could see houses and roads.
The three dots glided through a new housing estate, then joined up with a motorway. Ellis zoomed in, and found he could even make out tiny cars zooming alongside them, or in some cases straight through them in the opposite direction, which was a bit disconcerting. The motorway suddenly veered off to the left and they were travelling through open fields, and at the same time a dense forest.
He dragged his gaze away from the screen and looked up at Granny, his eyes wide.
‘That,’ he said, with a big grin spreading across his face, ‘is the coolest app ever!’
‘Going back to your first question,’ said Granny, pausing to extract a troublesome piece of cress from between her teeth and flicking it away, ‘what’s going on is, we’re on A Mission.’ She leaned back smugly, then looked thoughtful and added, ‘Well, two Missions actually.’
Hearing the important capitals, Ellis looked up from his phone. ‘What sort of missions?’ he asked.
Granny rummaged in her bag again. ‘Banana? No? Okay.’ She deftly unpeeled one and tossed the skin to Ian, who caught it in his sleep and swallowed it in one gulp. Taking a delicate bite, she chewed thoughtfully for a moment, whilst Ellis waited impatiently.
‘One,’ she said bananily, ‘is to find your dad. The other is to stop a bunch of nasty weasley no-goods from destroying everything the dragons have been building up for hundreds and hundreds of years. Although I think the two missions might be related, so you could probably just call it one mission, but sort of in two parts.’ She waved the banana around vaguely. ‘Actually, three parts if you include the coots. Sure you don’t want want a banana?’
Ellis had gone pale. He’d felt himself go pale – well, he’d had that tummy-dropping-heart-booming-hot-and-cold-dizzy feeling that he guessed made you go pale. Considering what had happened in the last few hours, he fleetingly wondered if he’d stay pale for life.
He managed to get his vocal chords working and said faintly, ‘Find my dad?’
Granny swallowed the rest of the banana and nodded. ‘Yep,’ she said peering at him, ‘You all right? You’ve gone a bit pale.’
Ellis took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘Um. I dunno. I guess… er… yeah. No. I don’t know.’ He stared down at Ian on his lap and chewed his lip, thinking hard. ‘You think my dad is here?’ he asked.
‘Oh, he’s here all right,’ said Granny, ‘I’ve seen all the signs. I’ve just never been able to get a good fix on him. But now…’ she paused and grinned conspiratorially ‘Well, here we both are!’
Something stirred in Ellis’s memory, and he screwed up his eyes trying to recall what it was. ‘Wait a minute, you said before that you knew where he was, but didn’t know yet how to find him. Do you mean you’ve worked it out, just since we were in your kitchen?’
‘Yep,’ said Granny smugly, ‘Clever, eh?’
‘But how?’ asked Ellis.
Granny was rummaging in her bag again. ‘How do you think you’re showing up on the map?’ she asked without looking up.
Ellis looked exasperated. ‘I don’t know!’ he said exasperatedly.
Granny looked a little peeved. ‘All right, calm down,’ she said, ‘Look, right, when I did that thing with your hair back in the kitchen, I – er – borrowed a bit of you. That’s all. I just borrowed a bit of you, popped it into the app, and that’s why you’re showing up on the map.’
‘You borrowed a bit of me?’ asked Ellis, ‘What bit?!’
Granny opened a large packet of crisps she’d just retrieved from her bag. ‘Just a hair,’ she said, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. Anyway, a bit later I noticed something, and that’s when I worked it out.’
Ellis shook his head. ‘This is bonkers,’ he said flatly.
Then he looked down at Ian snoozing in his lap, and realised that everything was, indeed, extremely bonkers. And also that it was all happening. For real.
He sighed. ‘Sorry,’ he said quietly, then looked up at Granny, who was crunching and watching him carefully. ‘Okay. So what did you notice?’
Granny swallowed a mouthful of crisps and had opened her mouth to reply when there was an ear-splitting screech of brakes and the train suddenly lurched violently from side to side. Ian shot off Ellis’ lap and landed in a tangle of baby badger on the floor, and the contents of Granny’s crisp packet dumped themselves over everyone.
‘Bugger,’ she said, ‘That was quick! Grab your bag and follow me – we’re here!’ And with an apologetic wave at the badger family, she extracted Ian from the tangle on the floor, threw her bag over her shoulder and crunched to the carriage door.
Ellis and Granny stood panting on a narrow platform, lit by a solitary lamp which cast a weak, flickery orangey glow around them. Ian was struggling under Granny’s arm, and a few stray crisps twirled around the ground in the backdraft from the train, which had made just the briefest of stops, giving them barely enough time to jump clear before it gathered speed amidst a cacophony of painful clanking and disappeared into the night.
‘Where are we?’ asked Ellis, shaking crisp crumbs out his hair and looking round for a signpost.
‘Here.’ said Granny. ‘Come in, let’s plonk ourselves on that bench for a few minutes before we head off, there’s a few things we need to do first.’
She dutifully plonked onto the bench closely followed by Ellis, and Ian jumped straight into his lap and went to sleep again. Ellis tickled him behind one scaley ear, and the orange dragon gave a gentle creak. More of a dragonette, really, thought Ellis as he smiled down at him. He was getting rather attached to the strange creature.
‘Ooft!’ said Granny, as she leaned back and dug her phone out her pocket, ‘Right, pass it over here for a mo.’
Ellis held out his own phone and Granny looked at it blankly, then up at Ellis. ‘Not that!’ she said.
‘What then?’ asked Ellis, confused.
‘Oh. I hadn’t got quite that far explaining, had I?’ She huffed on the screen of her own phone and polished it on her trouser leg. ‘I noticed that thing you’ve got,’ she continued, ‘well, when I say notice, I don’t mean notice – it’s rather obvious so probably anyone would notice it. I mean more like, when I got close, I could feel it. And that’s what I need to borrow for a moment.’
Ellis was still confused. ‘Nope, still not a clue,’ he said, fiddling with the old leather bracelet on his wrist. He stopped fiddling suddenly and looked up at Granny, who cast her eyes down at the bracket, then back to his face and nodded. ‘That’s the bunny!’ she said encouragingly.
‘This?’ asked Ellis, ‘It’s just an old leather thing I found at home – mum said I could have it. I guess it was something from her hippie days.’ He fiddled with it again, spinning the chunky silver bead around, and found that he felt rather reluctant to take it off.
Granny gave a faint smile. ‘You’re sort of right,’ she said, ‘but it wasn’t your mum’s – she has hers on a necklace. That one’s your dad’s’
Ellis felt his stomach give a little lurch and he looked down at the bracelet, then back at Granny.
‘This – really? This was dad’s?’
‘Is your dad’s,’ said Granny, ‘which is why I need to borrow it for a mo. Come on, chop chop!’
Ellis hesitated for a moment longer, then carefully squeezed the bracelet over his hand and held it out for Granny, who took it gently and laid it on the bench in between them.
‘The thing about leather,’ Granny said, as she flicked open a tiny, sharp-looking penknife she’d produced from a pocket, ‘is it’s absorbent, see.’ She held down the bracelet with one hand and brought the knife towards it with the other.
‘Wait!’ yelled Ellis, horrified, ‘you can’t cut it! What are you doing?!’
Granny’s knife hand paused. ‘I’m not cutting,’ she said, ‘more like taking a little shaving. Don’t worry.’ She very gently sliced off a tiny sliver of leather from the inside of the bracelet, whilst Ellis held his breath. ‘Your mum and dad made two of these silver beads when they first met at some festival or other – you mum put hers on a necklace, and your dad put his on this. It’s odd he wasn’t wearing it when he disappeared – ‘ she paused and pondered thoughtfully for a second or two. ‘Unless of course he left if behind on purpose. Yes, I suppose that’s possible. And rather interesting.’ She picked up the sliver of leather on the tip of her knife and squinted at it. ‘That should do, you can put it back on now.’
‘How do you know all this stuff?’ asked Ellis, squeezing the bracelet back on.
‘Oh, you know…’ said Granny, who’d picked up her phone in her free hand and was holding it up, as if focussing it on the tip if the knife to take a photo. ‘It’s complicated…’ She grunted. ‘Give me a hand here – just hold this really steady for a sec.’
She passed Ellis the penknife and he took it carefully, making sure he didn’t dislodge the tiny shaving of leather on its tip.
Granny aimed the phone again, gave a satisfied ‘Hmph,’ and tapped the screen.
There was very quick, sharp whistling buzz in Ellis’s ears, and a bright blue flash from the back of Granny’s phone. It was so blue it hurt. He blinked, trying to clear his vision, and saw that the sliver of leather had disappeared from the tip of the knife.
‘Oh. Sorry…’ he began, and looked down at the bench trying to find it.
‘It’s okay,’ said Granny, ‘I got it. Now then, do you want to see something clever?’ She twisted round on the bench so that Ellis could see the phone’s screen. It contained an extremely high resolution image of the piece of leather, which appeared to be floating against a black background, turning gently.
‘Hey,’ exclaimed Ellis, ‘You have a 3D camera on your phone?! That’s awesome!’
‘It’s not exactly a camera,’ said Granny, trying and failing to hide her smugness. She shook the phone gently, causing the piece of leather to drift up and down the screen. ‘It didn’t take a picture of it, it took it.’
Ellis looked incredulous.
‘Well I did say I’d modified the phone a bit,’ said Granny, turning it over and showing him what looked like a tiny hole in the back. He’d noticed it before in her kitchen, but had forgotten about it. ‘Now, cross your fingers – let’s see if the leather still had a bit of your dad left in it.’
Something in Ellis’s brain clicked into place. He suddenly felt very excited, and held his breath as Granny typed a very complicated-looking formula into a pop-up window on the screen and pressed ‘OK‘.
The tiny orange dragon chased its tail on the screen of Granny’s phone for a few moments, then faded and the screen went black.
Ellis and Granny waited a few seconds. Nothing happened. Granny frowned, and pressed the power button on the top of the phone – the screen lit up briefly, then died. But it gave them both enough time to catch a fleeting glimpse of the tiny text next to the battery icon which said 1%.
‘Bugger.’ said Granny.
Ellis looked a bit worried. ‘Now what?’ he asked worriedly.
Granny was rummaging around in her bag again. ‘Wake Ian,’ she said, ‘We’re going to need his help.’ She pulled a knot of cable out of her bag and began untangling it; one end had the normal charger-type plug on it, and the other end – Ellis couldn’t quite see it properly, but it looked flat and shiny. He gently shook Ian, who opened his eyes sleepily and burped. Meanwhile Granny had had another rummage in her bag, and was now holding up a fluffy silver ball and eyeing it with distaste.
‘Can’t abide fluffiness,’ she muttered, ‘Ah well, needs must…’ She waved the ball in front of Ian’s nose and cooed in the high-pitched voice of the terminal cat-talker ‘Ooooh, lookie here Ian! It’s your favourite fetch-ball!’
Ian’s ears pricked up and he swivelled his head to follow the ball as Granny waved it about. Keeping his eyes on it, he sat up suddenly on Ellis’s lap.
‘Ready Ian?’ cooed Granny, ‘Ready? Reeeeeeadyyyyyy?’ Ian flicked his tail impatienly. ‘Iaaaaaannn… FETCH!’
Granny chucked the ball.
Ellis winced as Ian leapt off his lap and raced down the platform after it, disappearing into the dark in a clatter of claws. There was a slight thud, silence, then Ellis saw something orange racing back towards them, the dull glow of the lamp shining off the silver ball in its mouth.
Ian leapt back into Ellis’s lap, dropped the ball on the bench, and purred. Ellis blinked.
‘He’s a cat again!’ he exclaimed.
‘Can’t resist his fetch-ball,’ said Granny as she plugged the cable into her phone. ‘Now just hold him still while I give him a good going over.’
Ellis realised that the shiny flat thing on the other end of the cable was a tiny metal comb, and he laughed in disbelief.
‘You’re kidding!’ he said, ‘You can charge your phone by combing a cat?!’
Granny was working up a sweat combing Ian vigorously, who’s purring got louder and louder. There was a sudden loud snap. Ian twitched and flattened his ears, Ellis jumped, a bright white spark flashed up the cable and the screen on Granny’s phone flashed back into life.
‘Static electricity,’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘Handy things, cats.’ She peered at the phone’s screen. ‘Still only 98% tho – I’ve never managed to get it to a hundred.’
Ellis shook his head grinning as Granny stuffed the cable and Ian’s fetch-ball back in her bag.
‘Now then,’ she said, dumping her bag on the ground and hutching up the bench nearer to Ellis, ‘Let’s see what we’ve got.’
She tapped and swiped at the phone’s screen, pursing her lips and making “tch-tch-tch” noises under her breath, then she said ‘Aha!’ triumphantly and showed Ellis the screen.
‘“Found Three Nachos”?’ he read out loud.
Granny looked at the screen and tutted. ‘How did I not pick that up?!’ she said resignedly. ‘Matches, it should say matches. Stupid spellchecker.’
‘Ohhhh,’ said Ellis, then ‘Oooooooh!’
Granny tapped on the screen and they both leaned in close to read the tiny writing, apologised as their heads bumped together, then leaned in again a bit more carefully.
The tiny text on the screen read:
“1. Name: Ellis
Species: homo sapiens
Age: 10 1/2
Location: Bench, Platform 1, Lower Brimpton Station
2. Name: Bernard
Species: mus musculus
Age: 1 1/4
Location: Cupboard Under Sink, 23 Station Road, Arnotts Hollow
3. Name: Ellis’s Dad
Species: homo sapiens
Age: 36 1/2″
Ellis stopped breathing as Granny scrolled the screen with a stubby finger.
“Location: Chuntie Knowe, Glenbourach”
Ellis felt his tummy turn upside down, inside out, twist sideways, do a backflip, then settle down into a state of indescribable jitter. He dragged his gaze away from the phone and looked up at Granny, who appeared to have dissolved slightly. In fact, it looked like there were about seven of her. Numerous appendages extended and something white zoomed towards his face.
‘Have a tissue,’ Granny said.
Ellis blinked, took the tissue, and rubbed his eyes hard. Granny settled back into the singular, and Ellis became aware of a gentle kneading sensation on his tummy. He looked down to see Ian gently treadling him with his front paws and staring intently into his eyes. Ellis automatically tickled him under his chin, and Ian closed his eyes, stretching out his neck contentedly. Dabbing his eyes again and feeling a bit self-conscious, Ellis blew his nose. There was a faint creak from his lap, and Ellis saw – without much surprise now – that Ian had returned to his scaly self.
He looked up at Granny, who appeared to be extremely busy in her bag with her back to him. There was a muffled parp, which sounded suspiciously like someone trying to blow their nose in secret.
She turned, giving her loud glasses a final polish on her cardie before shoving them back on her face, and squinted at Ellis.
‘Ok?’ she asked, ‘Ready to carry on?’
Ellis took a deep breath and exhaled. The exhale came out a bit more wobbly than he’d have liked.
‘Yeah,’ he croaked, then cleared his throat and tried again. ‘Yeah, it’s just – well…’ he shrugged, ‘It’s proper real now, isn’t it.’ He looked up at Granny. ‘He’s… my dad… he’s not…’ Ellis struggled for the right word. ‘He’s not lost anymore, is he?’
Granny smiled a little tight-lipped smile. ‘It’s always been proper real, lad. And no, he’s not lost anymore. Never was, really, not in that sense; but he needed finding. And we done it.’ She smiled again, a little less tightly. ‘And that’s your fault that is. Right, come on now, let’s get your old man into our maps so’s we can keep our eye on him and find him properly.’
She switched her phone back on, clicked on the words “Ellis’s Dad” and selected the option “Add to map“. The orange dragon span lazily on the screen for few seconds, then the map app automatically opened, and Ellis saw the three coloured blobs that were himself, Granny and Ian, clustered around Lower Brimpton. Then Granny pinched the screen a few times to zoom out and Ellis’s jaw dropped.
According to the map, Lower Brimpton was a small town, just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
‘Berwick?!’ exclaimed Ellis, ‘No way can we be right up there! We were only on the train for, what, half an hour? Forty minutes? It’s impossible – it must be at least 200 miles to Berwick from Arnotts Hollow!’
Granny pushed her glasses up her nose. ‘There’s shortcuts,’ she said quietly.
‘Shortcuts?’ asked Ellis.
‘Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that bloke closed all those railway lines down donkey’s years back. Kept that part of it quiet tho, didn’t want people knowing. Not good for business. But this side found a way to keep them open, but hidden, see. Until a few years back, when all The Trouble started. That’s what we were fighting against when It happened.’
Ellis looked incredulous. He’d read about the time lots of railway lines were closed – including the one that ran past Granny’s house. But… shortcuts? Then he replayed the last bit of what Granny had just said.
‘We?’ he asked.
Granny looked uncomfortable.
‘We who?’ pressed Ellis, but in the back of his mind he thought he knew.
Granny took off her glasses and started polishing them on the bottom of her cardie again. ‘Me and your dad,’ she said quietly.
Ellis once again felt as though his world was going backwards and sideways all at once.
‘You and dad? Hang on, so you’ve known all along that he wasn’t…’ Ellis paused briefly, ‘…dead?’ It seemed easier to say now that he knew he wasn’t. Or at least, had some very peculiar sort-of-evidence that he wasn’t. ‘And you didn’t tell us?’ Ellis voice rose in pitch and got louder, ‘You didn’t say anything to us?! You just let us believe that… that was it?! He’d gone?!’
‘Shut up.’ Granny said sharply.
Ellis gaped at her and was about to reply when he realised she was staring coldly and rather dangerously over his shoulder. Then his nose noticed the smell – and this time it wasn’t Ian. This was a much darker smell, a bad smell. A smell that boded.
And not in a good way.
A rather whiney, scratchy voice broke the silence.
‘Well, well, well, if it ain’t the Old Woman and her scrawny pet,’ the voice said, sounding just as dark and boding as the smell. ‘And who’s this squirt? No wait, I can smell him…’
Ellis turned, his hot anger disappearing into cold fear as a tall, skinny figure in a raggedy robe – no, Ellis checked himself – it was more of a hoodie than a robe. A dirty, raggedy, floor length hoodie, with the hood up and the drawstrings pulled so tight that the face was lost in shadow. Ian had woken up and gone rigid in Ellis’s lap, his eyes narrowed to slits and the occasional spark flickering around his nostrils as he fizzed quietly. The thing leaned towards Ellis, who recoiled in disgust, and it sniffed deeply and snottily. Then it gave a huge involuntary twitch that raised one shoulder up to where its ear would be if it didn’t have its hood up, and its head appeared to twist halfway round on its neck. It spat a large gobbit, which splatted wetly onto the platform. ‘Aaaaaaah,’ the thing said, exhaling noisily, ‘The son…‘ it hissed, with a snickery giggle.
‘Mousole,’ said Granny coldly, ‘What are you doing here? I didn’t think you lot used the railways.’
‘We use whatever we like,’ the thing hissed, it’s head snapping towards Granny. ‘We knew you was here,’ it continued, ‘We smelled you.’
‘I’ll bet you did,’ said Granny, and to Ellis’s ears she sounded as though she was trying to sound annoyed, whilst also trying to hide a touch of smugness.
The thing gave a piercing whistle, and more skinny, be-hoodied figures melted out of the darkness around them. Well, three of them were skinny. The fourth was a lot smaller and definitely not skinny. It’s hoodie was stretched tight over an podgy belly and trailed on the floor around it, and a large pair of thick, round glasses protruded from the tightly draw-stringed hood. It hung back a little from the others and projected an air of nervousness.
‘All right Moleface?’ said Granny loudly and cheerfully, ‘still trying to burrow your way into the wrong crowd? Bet your poor old mum’s turning her grave.’ The figure jumped and tried to sidle behind one of the taller shades, mumbling inaudibly.
‘Leave him be,’ snapped Mousole angrily, then turning to the figure nearest to him, he hissed ‘I tole you not to bring him! Whatchew bring him for?!’ A muffled, hissy, argument ensued between the two of them.
Ellis leaned towards Granny, trying to make it look as though he wasn’t leaning towards her, which was a little difficult because he was.
‘Who – what are they?’ he asked out of the corner of his mouth.
Before Granny could answer, a screech erupted from the shadows. It was such a screechy screech that Ellis felt all the hairs on his entire body stand up, and his ears tried to close in protest. The screech was followed by a looming presence which oozed authority to such a degree that Ellis knew the screech’s owner possessed a total unwillingness to even slightly bend even the most loosest of rules. At all. Ever.
‘MISTER MOUSOLE! ACCORDING TO ITEM SEVEN CLAUSE THREE BEE OF OUR STATION BYLAWS, NO PERSON OR OTHERWISE SHALL SPIT ON THE RAILWAY. YOU JUST DID. SO GET OFF MY STATION AND TAKE YOUR MISERABLE LITTLE FRIENDS WITH YOU. NOW!’
The last word was screeched so loudly that Ellis’s ears rang, and Ian stopped fizzing and thrust his head into Ellis’s armpit, whimpering.
The be-hoodied figures had frozen. For a tiny moment there was total silence; then, as one, they all turned tail and fled silently – except for the smaller tubby one, who ran into a lamp post in panic, re-bounded onto his back, scrabbled himself back to his feet, hitched up his robe, then (throwing a terrified glance over his shoulder at something behind Ellis) scurried after the others whimpering.
Granny turned to the owner of the screech and nodded. The owner of the screech inclined its head to Granny. Then it turned to Ellis and eyeballed him with interest.
‘Ellis,’ said Granny, ‘This is Mr Fishplate, the Station Manager.’
Ellis got to his feet hurriedly, forgetting Ian for a second who slid off his lap, tried to hang on to his trousers with a hasty claw, failed, and landed on the platform with a soft thud and subdued squeak. Ellis nervously shook the wing that was extended towards him. The wing belonged to a large – Ellis corrected himself – a very large seagull, that at first glance appeared to be all beak. Big, yellow, sharp, hooky beak. Then he saw a pair of dark unblinking eyes in a gleaming white head that felt like they were looking right through his skin, into his soul, and out the other side.
Mr Fishplate cocked his head to one side, and Ellis was quite impressed that his smart peaked cap, deep blue with gold frogging, didn’t fall off.
‘You look very much like your father, young man,’ said Mr Fishplate, and before Ellis could answer, the gull turned back to Granny.
‘I must say, Madam, I’m surprised to see you here without your protection. You of all people must know that to come here without it is certain to draw out The Undesirables – unless, of course, that was your intention?’
‘Busted!’ she said cheerfully, ‘I need to know exactly where they are, see – Mousole in particular. And the only way to do that is…’ she paused, and looked at Ellis expectantly.
Ellis, who’d picked up Ian and was trying to stop him from climbing on to his shoulder, realised he was being looked at and replayed Granny’s last words in his head.
‘Oh!’ he said, ‘…is to get him – well, a bit of him – into your map app.’
Granny nodded approvingly.
‘Off you go then,’ she said.
Ellis looked down at the glistening gobbet on the ground and wrinkled his nose.
‘I’m not touching that!’ he said hotly.
Granny sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to pick it up with your bare hands,’ she said, ‘find a twig or something and dip it in.’
Ellis lifted Ian – who’d stopped whimpering – carefully off his lap, slipped down off the bench and went off moodily in search of a twig. When he returned, Granny was deep in conversation with Mr Fishplate about train times and connections. He tentatively dipped the end of the twig he’d found in the gooey glump and walked over to Granny.
‘Good lad,’ said Granny, whipping out her phone. ‘Hold it up a bit higher.’ Ellis did so, making sure the goo didn’t ooze down the twig onto his hand. Apart from looking disgusting, it also stank. Then heard the sharp whistling buzz and this time closed his eyes against the painful blue flash.
Mr Fishplate returned the large pocket watch he’d been consulting to the pocket of his impressive blue jacket and gave a low-pitched screech. There was a rattling of claws, and a small, rotund owl wearing a miniature version of Mr Fishplate’s uniform but with less gold frogging appeared from the gloom, struggling with a large bucket and mop. It proceeded to mop up the rest of the gloopy gobbet.
‘My youngest,’ Mr Fishplate explained proudly, ‘he wants to be train driver when he fledges.’ Ellis couldn’t help himself and looked from the tiny owl to the huge gull in disbelief.
‘Adopted,’ said Granny, patting the young owl on the head as he scurried off, bucket and mop clattering, stopping to politely take the twig from Ellis on his way.
Granny picked up her bag, and tucked Ian under her arm. ‘Mr Fishplate has kindly offered us a brew whilst we wait for our connection,’ she said to Ellis, ‘and I still have a bit of explaining to do, which he can help with – he’s probably a bit more up-to-date than me, what with being here on-the-spot, like.’
Mr Fishplate nodded gravely and led the way down the platform to the station building, which looked very much like Granny’s cottage except it was immaculately clean and tidy, so really didn’t look anything like it at all except in shape. He ushered them through a door and into a small office. There was only one chair, apart from the one behind the large, highly polished desk which the gull settled into, and Granny plomped herself down in it, whilst Ellis looked round and settled on a large wooden trunk. Ian wriggled out from under Granny’s arm, trotted across the floor and hopped up onto Ellis’s lap where he promptly fell asleep.
There was a loud rattle, and the door was flung open, making Ellis jump. The tiny owl struggled in with a large tray containing a teapot in a jolly knitted cosy with a train pattern on it, three mugs, milk jug, sugar bowl, spoons, and a biscuit barrel. They all watched, holding their breath, as he carefully hopped up a little stepladder by the desk and put down the tray carefully. Then he hopped back down the ladder, bowed politely and scurried out, closing the door quietly behind him. Ellis wondered how he’d managed to open the door with his wings full, but didn’t like to ask.
Mr Fishplate poured, milked, sugared, and handed round the mugs. Then he cleared his throat, turned his head to one side and stared hard at Ellis, who fidgeted uncomfortably under his gaze and felt himself go red.
‘Granny tells me you are rather upset;’ said Mr Fishplate, flicking an imaginary speck of dust from the desk in front of him with the tip of one wing. ‘You feel she has behaved unfairly by hiding the fact from you and your mother these past years that your father is merely lost, not dead.’
Ellis went even redder and mumbled a reply into his mug, the hot steam making his eyes water. He liked Mr Fishplate, but couldn’t squash the feeling that he was sitting in the headmaster’s office about to get a Proper Good Telling Off.
‘It may seem a little harsh,’ Mr Fishplate continued, ‘but believe me: it was Absolutely Necessary. The Undesirables you met earlier couldn’t be allowed to know the truth, and if she’d told you – or your mother – while you were over on the other side, they would have picked up on it immediately.’ He paused and took a slurp of his tea.
Ellis was so locked into feeling like a Very Naughty Boy that he forgot to watch how he managed this with a beak.
Mr Fishplate placed his mug back down on the exact centre of the coaster on his desk, and continued.
‘If that had happened, then everything we’ve been working towards for all these years – and that ‘we‘ includes your father – would have been rendered worthless.’ He leant forwards. ‘Do you understand?’
Ellis didn’t think he had any redness left in him, but he obviously had as felt himself go even redder. He did understand – in fact it seemed rather obvious now Mr Fishplate had spelled it out, and he was starting to feel very silly for loosing his temper. He nodded and mumbled ‘Yessir,’ into his mug.
Mr Fishplate leaned back in his chair, which squeaked. Ian’s ears pricked up briefly in his sleep, and he creaked to himself.
‘You are probably feeling a bit silly for loosing your temper,’ continued Mr Fishplate, and Ellis nodded vigorously, ‘but we understand. You’d had a shock, and you were as yet unaware of many, many things. Now you are aware of a bit more than you were, and you feel silly. It is to be expected. It shows how much you love your father and your mother, because your anger was also on their behalf. That is an admirable quality in one so young, and we are proud of you for that.’
Mr Fishplate reached for his mug, his steady eye still fixed on Ellis, who was looking at him in surprise. He looked over at Granny, who was grinning widely. She raised her mug to him in a salute and took a noisy slurp. Ellis relaxed and gave a little grin of relief.
‘Thank you,’ he said to Mr Fishplate, suddenly feeling rather more grown-up than he’d ever remembered feeling before in his life. And turning to Granny, he said ‘I’m sorry I shouted at you, Granny.’
Granny looked pleased, and a touch embarrassed. ‘Oh, piffle!’ she said, and Ellis could just make out a twinkle in her eye behind the massive glasses, which were steamed up due to the hot tea. ‘Now then,’ she said, taking her glasses off and wiping them squeakily on her cardigan, ‘That’s that all sorted out. Now down to business.’ She returned her glasses to her face and leaning forwards, looked intently at Mr Fishplate. ‘What’s the news Mr Fishplate? Is he still safe?’ she asked.
Ellis held his breath – ‘he‘ could only mean his dad, surely? Mr Fishplate steepled his wing tips together on the desk and looked thoughtful.
‘I think we must assume he is. After all, if they’d found him, I’m sure we would have heard,’ He took his cap off and scratched his head, then smoothed his feathers back into place again. ‘I must admit though, I am becoming increasingly concerned over the condition of his protection. It must surely be wearing a bit thin after all this time.’ He out his cap back on and adjusted it carefully.
Granny nodded thoughtfully. ‘I bought a spare one with me in case of that,’ she said, patting her bag, and Mr Fishplate gave a low screech of satisfaction.
‘A wise move,’ he said, ‘Chuntie Knowe may be giving him additional protection; but on leaving his old one may not be strong enough.’
Ellis couldn’t stand it anymore.
‘His old what? What protection!’ he asked urgently.
Granny reached into her bag and pulled out a bundle of dark cloth. She shook it out and held it up. It was a hooded robe – or a floor length hoodie – similar to the ones The Undesirables had been wearing, except this one was clean and new-looking. It was also a lot smaller than Granny in all directions.
‘Here you go,’ she said, tossing it to Ellis, who caught it in his feet. ‘It’s been soaked in Odour Eater – you know, the stuff I was making from the crackleberries? The stuff you trod in in the kitchen?’
Ellis had reached down to pull the garment off his feet, but recoiled as he remembered the strange, creeping gunk that had explored inside his shoes and around his toes.
‘Oh, don’t be such a big silly,’ said Granny, ‘It won’t hurt you. It’s your protection – those Undesirables have a very keen sense of smell, they can pick us up from miles off. But this’ll mask your smell, and it’ll also let you know if any of them are nearby. That’s what the crackleberries are for.’
‘How can a robe let me know something?’ asked Ellis, gingerly holding up the robe and giving it a tentative sniff. It didn’t smell of anything. In fact, he thought as he sniffed again, it really didn’t smell of anything. It had an anti-smell – a total absence of smell. So total, it made him feel a bit dizzy.
Granny shrugged. ‘It creeps,’ she said, ‘Only a little bit, but enough to let you know.’
Before Ellis could enquire further, a loud bell rang on a large, clock-like contraption on the wall.