* * *
IT WASN’T too late when she got back and neither of her grandparents seemed too worried about her. Later, in the dining room, as they all ate the tinned tuna salad her grandmother had made, she told them about the boy she had met in the forest and about how he was frightened of cows and about how he made her laugh.
“Gosh,” said her grandfather.
“That’s nice, dear,” said her grandmother. “Cup of tea?”
* * *
In the next two weeks Allegra and Ben spent every day together. They fought pirates, chased butterflies, hid from hovering space aliens and generally did everything that would get them sweaty and dirty.
“Goodness gracious,” her grandmother would say every day as she picked up the clothes that Allegra dropped lazily on the floor of the bathroom, “what have you been doing?”
And every day Allegra would make up ever more outrageous lies: “We dug a tunnel in the woods, about a mile deep I would think, and we found the abbot’s treasure.”
Or: “Ben was eaten by a cow and I only just escaped with my life by crawling down the badgers’ sett.”
To which her grandmother would smile and say: “That’s nice, dear.”
Then one day their adventures brought them to within shouting distance of the house – usually they stayed deep in the woods, far away from adults – and Allegra had an idea.
They were soldiers at the time, fleeing a maximum security prison by crawling through the undergrowth undetected. Their escape route, though, had ended in a large expanse of lawn with no cover.
“It’s someone’s house,” whispered Ben. He had twigs all over him and mud on his face. Despite the warm summer’s day he was wearing a black woollen beanie, like one he had once seen a commando wear in a war film. “We should turn around or we’ll be caught.”
“It’s my house,” confessed Allegra. She, too, was covered in twigs and mud. They lay there for a while on their stomachs, full length under cover of the tendrils of a boisterous grape vine and an out-of-control weeping willow. “I mean, my grandparents live there.”
“Do you think they can see us?” asked Ben quietly.
Allegra watched as the resident pair of pheasants picked and pecked around the edges of the lawn and a cheeky squirrel leapt down from a tree to raid the food that her grandmother had left on the bird table.
Just to the left of that a squabble of sparrows created havoc and a miniature rainbow as they splashed around in the shallow waters of a lichen-covered stone birdbath.
Not far from their hiding place three rabbits nibbled the grass and twitched their long ears.
“No, I don’t think so. If the animals don’t know we’re here then my grandparents will never see us.” She paused. “I know, let’s see how far we can get before we’re spotted. It’ll be like really escaping.”
“OK. Which way, captain?”
It took them at least 30 minutes before they had worked their way around the garden, on their bellies in the undergrowth, and another 10 making silent, wary dashes across the open spaces between the garage and the woodshed.
Finally, they made their way, undetected, to the back door that led into the outhouse and the kitchen. “Mission accomplished,” whispered Ben as they tensed themselves to creep under the front windows and slip into the darkness of the pine trees that lined the driveway on the far side of the house.
But it wasn’t to be. The back door opened with a sudden rattle and there stood Allegra’s grandfather with a black rubbish bag in one hand and a surprised look on his face.
“Gosh!” he said.
“Argh!” shouted Ben as he leapt into the air. Allegra could only laugh at the look on their faces.
“James?” Her grandmother’s voice came from inside. It was full of concern. “Are you alright?”
She appeared then, at his shoulder, and peered at the strange, leaf covered, muddy apparition before them. Ben stood still and silent, staring up at them, as if by not moving they wouldn’t see him.
“It’s a boy,” said granny Anne, as if by way of an explanation.
“Hello, gran,” said Allegra, poking her head around the corner of the door. “This is Ben.”
“He’s got a centipede on his head. Has he been digging another tunnel?”
“A tunnel? Gosh.”
* * *
Inside, Allegra’s grandparents insisted that they stop long enough to have some orange juice and carrot cake. Though not before they “cleaned up”.
“You look like you’ve been crawling in the dirt on your bellies.”
“We have,” grinned Allegra. Ben still hadn’t uttered a word.
“Right. Well. Upstairs you go; you are not eating cake with hands like that. Allegra, show your friend where the bathroom is. And use soap, both of you; your nails are disgusting.”
Ben could only nod and follow Allegra up the winding stairs to the first floor landing. As they reached the door of the bathroom they were stopped in their tracks by another shout from below.
“And, Allegra, tell Ben not to lock the toilet door if he uses it. You know what can happen.”
In the bathroom, as hot water began to swirl in the basin, Ben found his voice.
“They’re really tall.”
“Who?” Allegra looked around her.
“Your grandparents. Really tall. They’re like … like … standing-up whales.”
Allegra laughed so hard at this image that the soap popped out of her hand and into the air. It slapped down onto the floor and slid straight under the claw-footed bath.
As Allegra knelt down and tried to see where it had gone Ben stopped washing his hands.
“You know, I do need to use the toilet.”
“Well, go on then, I’m not stopping you.”
“Is it safe?”
“What? Oh, that. Just don’t lock the door; it gets stuck sometimes and it can take hours to get out. I’ve never been stuck in there but my … my dad used to get stuck in there a lot when he was a boy. That’s what granny Anne says. Whoever made the door put the lock on upside-down.”
“I’ll see you downstairs, OK? In the kitchen.”
Carrot cake and orange juice were, indeed, waiting for them in the kitchen. Allegra took a seat and, after a warning glance from her grandmother as she reached for the food, waited impatiently for Ben to come down.
“He seems like a nice boy.”
“He is. He’s fun.”
“Doesn’t say much, does he? Is he …”
But nothing more came out of her mouth, which hung open like some sort of human fly trap. Allegra frowned, puzzled.
She turned then to see what it was that had shocked her grandmother into silence. It was Ben, standing in the doorway, one hand on the doorknob. He had not only scrubbed his hands but had washed his face and taken off his grubby hat.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” he stuttered. It was obvious he had no idea why he was sorry. But sorry he was – sorry he had ever agreed to come into a house presided over by walking whales, toilets that, if you weren’t careful, held you prisoner for hours, and old ladies who looked at you like you were a ghost.
“Come in, come in,” said Allegra’s grandmother eventually, getting up and pulling out a chair. “Come in, Ben, and have some cake.” She smiled then but both the children could see it was one of those smiles that grown-ups put on when they’re thinking one thing and saying another.
They ate in awkward silence until granny Anne put down her Sudoku book and left the room. They heard her go into the main lounge room where Allegra’s grandfather was watching some sport or other on the television.
As soon as the door closed Ben began stuffing the cake into his mouth and slurping orange juice to ease its passage. Allegra joined him, cramming as much in her mouth as she possibly could as fast as she could.
“Can we go now?” asked Ben when he could speak again.
Allegra, who hadn’t quite managed to finish her food, tried to speak but instead inhaled a few crumbs of cake down the wrong way. She coughed to clear the obstruction, and sprayed the table with cake.
Ben sat back in shock, and then began to laugh.
Allegra coughed again, harder, her eyes watering now, and bits of cake and orange juice shot out of her nose.
Ben fell out of his chair, almost crying with laughter. He got up and peeked over the edge of the table.
“Is it safe?” he giggled.
Allegra began to laugh, too. Which isn’t easy, she discovered, when you are also coughing and wiping your nose clean of carrot cake.
The noise had, unfortunately, attracted the attention of Allegra’s grandmother, who came into the room with a flourish.
“What is all the … Allegra? Look at the mess!”
Ben could take no more. He stood up, muttered something about ‘cake’ and ‘thanks’ and ‘go’ and shot out of the back door like, thought Allegra, a pheasant across the back lawn.
“Well I never …” said her grandmother.
“Sorry, gran,” said Allegra. She tried to collect all the crumbs on the table together but her gran slapped her hands away.
“Go,” she said. “Get out. Go find your friend. I’ll clear up.”
Allegra was, again, puzzled. Had her gran been crying? Her eyes looked all red and veiny.
* * *
Allegra found Ben by the path that led down to the badgers’ sett and the cow field. He was sitting on a log, throwing stones aimlessly into the wood.
“Sorry,” he mumbled as Allegra sat next to him. She shrugged. What was there to say? Her grandmother was mad. It was the only explanation. They sat in silence for a while, both lost in thought.
“Shall we see what the evil cows are doing?” suggested Allegra eventually.
“Sure.” Ben still seemed subdued.
“Come on!” Allegra leapt up and slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll race you!”
And she was off and running down the shady pathway through the trees, happy that she could hear Ben thundering along after her.
They would watch the evil cows from afar and then perhaps battle some more pirates. One thing they would never do again, though, was go the cottage in the woods where the evil old witch and warlock lived.
* * *
It rained the next day. And the next. Allegra talked to Ben on the phone but there was no way they were going to be allowed out to play. Allegra, alone in the house with her grandparents, sulked.
When her mother rang from the United States in the evening Allegra gave one-word answers until her mother asked to talk to granny Anne. At which she was ushered out of the room, the door closed firmly behind her.
Allegra stomped about the house, opening doors and slamming them behind her. She ate her dinner in sullen silence and declined dessert even though it was trifle, her favourite.
“But it’s your favourite,” said her grandmother, holding a serving spoon of trifle over the cut-glass decanter she always made it in.
“I don’t want any.”
“I’ll have it,” said her grandfather. He held his bowl out but was met with a scowl from his wife. She plopped the spoon back into the trifle.
“No, James, you won’t. Are you ill, Allegra?”
“I just don’t want any. I’m not hungry.”
“Oh, alright then. I’ll just put this back in the fridge. Are you sure?”
No, I’m NOT sure, I would LOVE some trifle, I LOVE trifle!
Allegra could hear the voice in her head but she just looked down at her lap and shook her head. Couldn’t they SEE? Didn’t they CARE?
Afterwards, belly rumbling for the missed trifle, Allegra sat alone in the dining room, staring out through the rain-streaked windows into the dark. Lightning streaked across the sky and low growls of thunder rolled across the fields.
“I hate it here,” said Allegra to herself. She didn’t, of course. She knew she was being unreasonable but she couldn’t help it.
And then it came to her. She knew what she had to do next. She got up and slipped out into the hall. It was dark except for a small sliver of light that escaped from under the door to the television room.
She turned the light on and went up the stairs to the toilet on the first landing. She went inside and did what she had been told NOT to do ever since she was little.
She took hold of the big iron key in the upside-down lock and turned it.
She locked the door.
That would show them. They would have to take notice of her now.
Only … only … how would they know? They could be downstairs watching television for hours yet. It was only about 7 o’clock and they didn’t go up to bed until 9! Just how stupid was she?
She tried the door handle – perhaps it hadn’t locked. It had.
She turned the key the other way – perhaps it would unlock. It wouldn’t.
She kicked the door in frustration.
And someone on the other side kicked back.
Allegra jumped. The door had been kicked with force. Too much force. “Gran? Gramps?”
Silence. Surely if it was one of them they would have answered by now?
There were no more kicks but slowly, spookily, the key started to wriggle in the lock. It was like it had come alive. Allegra hesitated for a second and then, not knowing why, she snatched it out of the lock with two fingers and dropped it on the floor.
“Gran?” she cried. “Please answer me!”
Nothing, except, perhaps, what was that she could hear? Whispering? Were her grandparents maybe trying to talk to her through the keyhole? She moved gingerly forward, knelt down and put an eye against the lock …
… to find a large blue eye looking back at her.
She fell backwards onto her bottom, which brought back memories of her first meeting with Ben. But she didn’t have time to think any more than that because the door sprang open with a bang and there, standing in front of her on spindly, dragonfly legs, was a huge blue eye.
“Is that you, Salvador?” asked the Eye.
Allegra’s mouth dropped open and her own eyes, she could feel, grew wider than she had ever believed possible. Right at the back of her mind she could feel herself thinking that her own eyeballs might well just pop out of her head and go rolling off along the toilet floor.
The Eye, which shimmered and seemed to be made of diamonds with a blue clock face as its pupil, frowned down at her where she sat.
“You’re not Salvador!” it cried.
At which she quite fainted away.
* * *