SURREAL

surreal2ALLEGRA didn’t like going to stay with her grandparents. It was bo-o-o-ring. They lived deep in the countryside, in a big old rambling house that echoed with lots of rooms, and they were what her mother called ‘retired’.

This, as far as Allegra could see, meant that they didn’t do much of anything at all.

Her grandmother, Anne, was a tall, thin, stick of a woman with long grey hair that she kept tied up in a bun so small and tight that it must have given her a constant headache. She walked around the house and the garden and grounds with a permanently distracted air. It really annoyed Allegra when she walked into the kitchen and Granny Anne would look up from her Big Book of Sudokus, or from feeding the goldfish, and say ‘Oh there you are, dear’ as if it was a surprise, as if she hadn’t seen her JUST FIVE MINUTES AGO!

Allegra’s mother had told her once that goldfish had such tiny brains that they didn’t have much of a memory, which meant that every time they went around their bowl it was all new to them. Again.

“Nice cup of tea?” Granny Anne would say about a dozen times a day. But how could she not remember that Allegra hated tea, didn’t drink tea, not ever? Was her gran part-goldfish?

Her grandfather, James, wasn’t much better. He stooped around the place like some great upright owl, blinking at everything anew every day and smiling benignly at her like she was a new bug ready for the disgusting framed insect collection he kept in the attic.

He always, always wore faded brown slippers with a hole in one toe (unless he was going out into the garden, when he swapped them for faded green Wellington boots). These were paired with shapeless brown, baggy-kneed corduroy trousers, and shirts frayed and raggedy at all the collars and cuffs.

The scarecrow in the bottom field, thought Allegra, dressed better than her grandfather.

And at any moment of any day or evening she knew exactly where they would be. 11.15am? Lunch in the normally out-of-bounds dining room. 3.30pm? Afternoon quiz show on the TV. 9pm? Lights out and bed-to-bed-sleepy-head.

This annoyed her, too, because for all their smiles, for all their declarations of love, she knew she was an irritation. Well, she didn’t know; she felt it. Just being there threw a spanner in their carefully regulated works.

But ever since Allegra’s dad had left them, gone away without so much as a by-your-leave, her mother had had to go back to work as a ‘lorya’, whatever that was. And that meant that sometimes she needed to go overseas for a while.

Which, in turn, meant Allegra had to stay with Granny Anne and Grandpa James in the country. Which, as you can imagine, was Hell on Earth for a 10-year-old city girl.

Oh, the first few days were OK, what with all the exploring of the surrounding woods and fields. But there was only so much fun to be had on your own. And even the antics of the rabbits and squirrels and pheasants who made their homes in and around the back garden got dull after a while.

Though she never tired of hiding in the bushes, jumping out on the pheasants and watching them scoot, stiff and upright, across the grass and into the forest, their little legs carrying them over the ground exactly like the Road Runner in the cartoons. They moved so fast that it made her laugh and laugh and laugh.

Usually, she stayed with her grandparents for a few days at a time, maybe a week at the most. But then, one day, came the awful, awful news; her mother had the chance to go to work in America for six weeks.

Six weeks! A whole six weeks! During the school summer holidays!

It was, her mother said, a “fantastic opportunity”. And it would mean she wouldn’t have to go overseas for the rest of the year. How wonderful was that?

Allegra didn’t think it was wonderful at all. She knew what it meant. It meant six whole weeks in the countryside with her grandparents. But in the months since Allegra’s father had left them it was the first time she had seen a smile reach her mother’s eyes – and even Allegra knew better than to spoil that.

So she smiled right back and said how wonderful it would be. And if Allegra’s mother saw that Allegra’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, she didn’t say anything.

And so here she was, sitting in the window of her bedroom, looking down as her mother embraced her grandparents in the drive below. There were tears all round, of course, as there always were when her mother went away overseas. Finally, Allegra waved back at her mother as she got into their red car and kept waving as she drove slowly away down the potholed drive. There was a beep as she got to the end and then she was gone.

Allegra sighed and slumped her head into her hands. She could hear her grandparents shuffling about downstairs; one going in to the kitchen to the Big Book of Sudokus and the other to the lounge to read or watch cricket or tennis or something else equally stupid on the television.

And then all was silence. It was like some powerful god had flicked a switch and turned off every sound in the world. Except, she realized, the far-off tick-tock of the shiny wooden grandfather clock in the hall.

Tick-tock, tick … tock … tick …

… tock …

… t-i-ck …

… t-o-o-o-c-k …

If Allegra didn’t know better she would have sworn that time was slowing down. Suddenly six weeks loomed like six years. She peered down the driveway, stupidly hoping that her mother had had a change of heart and that her rusty red car would suddenly appear round the corner, and she burst into big, wet tears and great silent sobs.

* * *

One thing Allegra did like was sitting quietly and watching her grandmother paint. She had a little easel that folded up on itself and could be carried around like a laptop. It held all the little toothpaste tubes of paint, little bricks of watercolour paint, different sizes of brush and special paper.

And when the sun was out and “the muse” was upon her they would gather all the gear together – wide-brimmed hats, folding chair, bug spray – and head out into the daffodil field in the forest just beyond the end of the garden.

They went to the daffodil field – it wasn’t really a field, more of a circular clearing – because that was what granny Anne painted; daffodils. Occasionally she would branch out and paint bluebells but daffodils were what she loved.

She used, as you might imagine, a lot of yellow.

Allegra loved to watch the process by which a blank piece of paper slowly became a painting of a daffodil. And then, when she started to get bored, she would fidget and squirm and sigh loudly until her grandmother gave in and let her paint her own picture.

Then she would stretch out on the grass, rest her paper on the big art book that they brought with them, and paint whatever came into her head. She painted the house, she painted the garden, she painted the horses in the next field (not easy at all and they often came out looking more like giraffes), she painted her home in the city; and in every picture she painted the airplane that was taking her mother away from her for six whole weeks.

“That’s nice, dear,” said her grandmother, somewhat sadly. “Really lovely.”

“Gosh,” said her grandfather when she showed him later. He said this in a sort of hushed tone, as if she had shown him something incredibly rare or priceless. This wasn’t much of a surprise because her grandfather said ‘gosh’ to most things. And if he didn’t say ‘gosh’ he said ‘golly’. Allegra thought he would receive news of the end of the world in much the same way: “Golly.”

He never said ‘golly-gosh’, though. Allegra wondered if he ever would, and what would make him do it.

* * *

It was towards the end of her second week there that Allegra met Ben. She had wandered off along the public footpath that cut through her grandparents’ property and was peering into the entrance to a large badgers’ sett when she got the feeling she was being watched.

She had been tossing pieces of rock and flint into the entrance to the sett, just to see what would happen, when she got a funny feeling, as if ants were crawling up into her hair.

She dropped the rocks and clapped a hand to the back of her neck. She glanced around. There were a few cows in the upper field, chewing cud and occasionally looking at her with that patient but slightly puzzled expression that cows get sometimes, but there was nobody else around.

So why did she feel she was being watched?

And then someone giggled. Right above her head someone giggled. She was so surprised that she turned too quickly, slipped in a patch of mud, toppled backwards and fell with her bottom firmly stuck in the entrance to the badger’s sett.

The giggles turned to gales of laughter and, as she struggled to stand up, she looked up with a dark frown to find a boy sitting in the branches of the tree above her.

“It’s not funny,” she snapped.

The boy, who was about the same age as her and dressed in dirty jeans and a red T-shirt, only laughed even harder.

“Stop it!’ ordered Allegra. It wasn’t easy to be stuck in what was essentially a large rabbit hole and stamp your foot but she tried it.

And the boy roared, no cried, with laughter. He laughed so much that tears came to his eyes.

“You should see yourself,” he said through his giggles. It was all obviously too much for him because when he lifted a hand to wipe the tears away he lost his grip on the branch he was sitting in and toppled out of the tree.

With a yelp he turned a perfect, shocked somersault in the air and landed with a whump on his back in front of Allegra.

There was a shocked silence for a few seconds and then, gradually, the boy began to move. He sat up tentatively, feeling his back for injury.

“Ouch,” he said. “That hurt.”

And then it was Allegra’s turn to laugh.

The boy looked at her, still sitting there in her badger’s sett, and joined in.

The cows looked at them as if they were mad.

* * *

The boy lived with his mother and father a few miles away in a small thatched cottage reached along a winding, overgrown path a long way from the road, he said. They had only just moved in and he was exploring his new surroundings, he explained after they had stopped laughing. And he had been up the tree because the cows had attacked him.

“Attacked you? Cows?”

“Yup.”

The boy had a fine but insistent spray of freckles across his nose, red hair, and a serious expression on his face.

“They waited until I was halfway across the field and then began chasing me.”

“Chasing you? Cows?”

“Will you please stop repeating everything I say? Yes, the cows. They might seem all brown and slow and nice but, believe me, cows are evil.”

“Evil? Cows?”

“What did I…”

“Ha ha! Got you!”

“Very funny. I’m Ben,” said the boy, holding his hand out. They shook.

“Allegra.”

“Are you going to sit in that hole all day?”

Allegra looked down at herself. She was still sitting in the badger sett.

“Oops.” She giggled again. She felt stupid but she felt good, too.

“We have to go,” muttered Ben, getting to his feet. He reached down, grabbed her hands and pulled her up too. “Now.”

She followed Ben’s stricken gaze. He was staring at the cows.

“They’re just cows,” she said softly. But Ben wasn’t convinced. His eyes were fearful. He really was scared of cows. She looked at them again; were they a little closer? And were a few more of them looking their way? As she watched one of them trotted a few steps forward and then stopped. It seemed to be looking right at them.

“Let’s go,” said Ben, backing away.

“This is silly,” whispered Allegra. Why, she thought, was she whispering?

“I don’t like them, OK?”

“OK, let’s go.”

They spent the rest of the day grubbing through the woods, burrowing into the fallen leaves and rotting timbers, climbing up, over and under the trunks of long collapsed trees.

Then, all of a sudden, they both looked up and noticed a change in the light. The sun had fallen behind the hill nearby, bringing with it the gloom of twilight and a drop in temperature.

“I gotta go,” said Ben. He rubbed the back of one hand across his forehead, leaving a long dirty swipe there.

“Me too,” agreed Allegra.

“See you tomorrow?”

Allegra wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement of fact. And then realized it didn’t matter.

“Yeah,” she said. “Here or the badgers’ sett?”

“Here!” Ben blurted. “Because … because …”

“I know!” grinned Allegra. “Because …”

And here they shouted it together: “Cows are evil!”