His Name Was Walter chapter sampler

Angus&Robertson An imprint of HarperCollins Children’sBooks , Australia

First published in Australia in 2018 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Limited

ABN 36 009 913 517 harpercollins.com.au

Text copyright © Rin Pty Ltd 2018 Illustrations copyright © Jessica Cruickshank 2018

The right of Emily Rodda to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her under the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 . This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 , no part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher. His Name Was Walter is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. HarperCollinsPublishers Level 13, 201 Elizabeth Street, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia Unit D1, 63 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand A 53, Sector 57, Noida, UP, India I London Bridge Road, London SE1 9GF, United Kingdom 2 Bloor Street East, 20th floor, Toronto, Ontario M4W 1A8, Canada 195 Broadway, New York NY 10007, USA

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 4607 5618 8 (hardback) ISBN 978 1 4607 1020 3 (ebook)

Cover illustration and design © Jessica Cruickshank 2018 Internal illustrations © Jessica Cruickshank 2018 Internal design by Hazel Lam, HarperCollins Design Studio Typeset by Kirby Jones in Sabon LT Std and Old Craftsman Printed and bound in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

The papers used by HarperCollins in the manufacture of this book are a natural, recyclable product made from wood grown in sustainable plantation forests. The fibre source and manufacturing processes meet recognised international environmental standards, and carry certification.

For the first time all day, Colin wished he had his phone with him. Not to make a call — the place where they’d been stranded was a mobile dead spot, anyway — but so he could take a photograph. Dark purple clouds were rolling over the vineyards of Storm Valley, heavy with rain and growling with thunder. The light had dimmed to a weird yellow-green, and the river, sliding between bare, muddy banks, looked like the rippling back of a huge grey snake. A photo would have helped him paint the scene when he got home. Still, artists hadn’t had cameras in the old days. And, according to Mrs Fiori — sharp-eyed, sharp- tongued, sharp-haircut Mrs Fiori — students had been forbidden to bring their phones (‘or any other electronic devices’) on this weekend excursion to the ‘historic’ town of Grolsten because she wanted them to ‘immerse’ themselves in the past. Mrs Fiori had repeated this on the bus when she’d confiscated Grace Leslie’s mobile, craftily hidden inside a magazine. She’d said it yet again when she’d demanded that any other smuggled phones


be handed over, and taken possession of two more, plus a laptop. It had all sounded very fine, but stuck on a country road with four kids, a broken-down minibus and a storm on the way, Mrs Fiori was at this point probably far less interested in the past than in the immediate future. Colin certainly was. He’d volunteered to stay — he’d felt he had to when no one else offered, though being new he didn’t like attracting attention to himself — but he hadn’t bargained for this. He glanced at his watch. It had been his grandfather’s, and was a heavy old thing with a cracked leather strap. Colin wasn’t used to wearing it, and found it rather irritating, but he hadn’t liked the idea of not being able to check the time whenever he liked. Not that time seemed to mean much out here. It had been hours since the minibus clanked, coughed and died, hours since it had been discovered that they were in a dead spot, and jokey Mr Simon and the rest of the class had left to walk into Grolsten. It had even been a good hour since the road-service guy turned up, looked under the bus’s bonnet, poked around a bit and straightened up, shaking his head. He’d promised to tell Mr Simon to get taxis to pick them up, but the only vehicle they’d seen since he left had been the tow truck he’d sent. Lightning flashed on the horizon, and a few moments later there was a long, deep rumble of thunder. Telling himself that the unearthly light probably wouldn’t have


come out in a photo anyway, Colin turned away from the river and paced slowly back to the bus to see how the tow-truck guys were doing. The frail-looking girl called Tara Berne, the one who’d had the nosebleed just before the breakdown, was sitting on the ground with her back propped against her pack. She was so pale that her skin looked almost transparent, and she was shivering all over. Storms affected some people like that. Some animals, too. It was something to do with air pressure. Or maybe it was the electricity in the air. Anyway, Colin sincerely hoped that the poor girl’s nose wasn’t going to start bleeding again. Her embarrassment the first time had been pitiful, and Grace Leslie’s little screams of disgust hadn’t helped. He glanced at Grace, who’d turned her back on everyone and was using the tip of one of her crutches to swat at the ivy-choked fence that straggled along the roadside. He could almost read her mind as torn ivy leaves flew and scattered. Broken foot. Whack! Friends all in Grolsten with Mr Simon. Whack! Stuck here with Fiori and a bunch of losers. Whack! In the middle of nowhere. Whack! Out of contact. Whack! Whack! Whack! Grace suddenly looked over her shoulder and saw Colin watching her. Just for a second she looked embarrassed, then she shrugged, laughed, and limped away from the fence, leaving the evidence of her temper scattered on the grass behind her.


‘You and the kids’d better wait up there, love,’ the tow- truck driver said to Mrs Fiori, jerking his head at a big old two-storey house perched at the top of the little hill that rose beside the road. ‘Your mate in Grolsten hadn’t had any luck with taxis when I spoke to him. They don’t like coming way out here this time of the day — too much doing in town. I’ll let him know where you are. The place is empty but you’ll get in all right. Back door’s not locked.’ His wiry little helper, who’d been checking the chains that held the minibus in place, glanced quickly at him, then at the five people stranded on the roadside, but didn’t say anything. Mrs Fiori looked flustered. ‘Oh, but we can’t just—’ ‘It’s okay — it’s my dad’s place,’ said the driver, lifting his chin and raising his voice slightly, as if he were throwing out some sort of challenge. ‘Well, Dad owns it, anyhow. The idea is to make a guesthouse out of it, but no one’s living in it — yet.’ The wiry man made a small snorting sound. He might have been just clearing his throat, but Colin didn’t think so. The Chinese-looking kid Mrs Fiori had ordered to stay behind and whose name Colin couldn’t remember, obviously didn’t think so, either. He was staring at the driver’s mate curiously. It was the first time Colin had seen him looking anything but bored when his eyes weren’t glued to a screen. Lucas! That was the guy’s name — Lucas Cheah. Not that it really mattered. Colin had only been at this


school for two weeks, but it had taken him less than two minutes to decide that he and a chilly computer genius like Lucas had nothing in common and were never likely to be friends. Mrs Fiori hadn’t noticed the wiry man’s snort or Lucas Cheah’s interest. She’d brightened like someone who’d been drowning and had just been thrown a lifeline. ‘Oh, thank you! That would be marvellous!’ she said. ‘And maybe I can get a phone signal from there, too. My colleague did try from the top of the hill when we first broke down. He had no luck, but maybe if I try different places in the house—’ ‘Nah,’ drawled the wiry man. ‘No reception round here. They reckoned the new tower’d help, but it hasn’t. Cars conk out here, too. Right here. Always on this side of the bridge. All the time. Can’t tell you how many cars we’ve towed—’ ‘Yeah, well, you’d better get going if you’re going, love,’ the driver cut in, shooting his mate a dirty look. ‘She’ll be coming down hard pretty soon. Don’t expect much up there. The electricity’s on and the toilet works and all that, but it’s a bit rough. We’re trying to do the place up, but it’s hard to keep the tradies at it — they can pick and choose out here.’ Distant lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled, sounding closer. Grace Leslie yelped, then laughed at herself, rocking back on her crutches, the bulbous plastic boot that encased her broken foot dangling, her glossy hair


flying, her teeth very white against her smooth, milk- chocolate skin. Colin suddenly thought he’d like to paint her looking just like that, with the storm clouds behind her. But of course Grace wouldn’t want to be painted just like that. She’d care too much about looking glamorous. ‘Thank you! We’re so grateful!’ Suddenly galvanised, Mrs Fiori began to make broad shooing motions with her arms as if she had a whole team of kids to muster instead of only four. ‘Come on, all of you! Grace, take it carefully, won’t you? You too, Tara. Here, I’ll help you with your backpack. Now, stop straight away if you feel … Lucas and Colin, take Grace’s pack between you, will you please? No, Grace, you can’t manage — don’t be silly! Thank you, Colin! Lucas, take the other strap. Lucas, do you hear me?’ And so the five people who would remember this day for the rest of their lives straggled through the wide space that gaped between a pair of ivy-swaddled gateposts and began following the rutted wheel tracks that led up to the house on the hill. Soon they began to move faster. Tumbling closer, the storm clouds heaved and grumbled, but no one glanced up. The tow truck started with a roar on the road below, but no one glanced around. They were all looking ahead, at the house with its dark, sealed windows, its high frowning walls, its steeply pitched roof studded with tall chimneys, pointy gables and a little round tower. They all felt the urge to hurry.


Not because of the thunder. Not because of the fear of getting wet — there was no rain falling yet. No, it was something else — something like a silent call that was felt rather than heard. Some of the five felt the call more strongly than others, but all of them obeyed it. Even Anna Fiori, so conscious of keeping her dignity in front of her students. Even Lucas Cheah, who believed in nothing he couldn’t see. Even Grace Leslie, who at this stage of her life had trouble focusing on the things that really mattered because her mind was always so cluttered with things that didn’t. They were all gasping for breath by the time they reached the house’s long backyard and began dodging round piles of builders’ rubble to reach the back door. Yes, they all felt the call. But at that point, only Tara could hear the whistling.


Inside the house at last, in a huge, echoing kitchen with a big central table and a cardboard box overflowing with crushed Coke cans, empty milk cartons, used sandpaper and greasy paper bags, Colin had a strong sense of anticlimax. Most of the others seemed to feel the same. Mrs Fiori switched on the light and self-consciously smoothed her hair. Grace started rummaging in her pack for food, at the same time complaining noisily about the stale, old-kitchen smell. Lucas slid silently onto one of the long benches that stood on either side of the table, hunched his shoulders and went back to his roadside occupation of staring into space. But Tara Berne hovered in the doorway looking around nervously, and didn’t sit down even when Mrs Fiori told her to. ‘What’s the matter, Tara?’ Mrs Fiori demanded, trying not to sound impatient but failing completely. The girl jumped slightly. A faint red stain stole over her pale cheeks. ‘Nothing,’ she mumbled. ‘I’m okay.’ But


still she didn’t move, even when Grace discovered half a packet of chocolate biscuits and with a grand flourish put it on the table for everyone to share. The storm was sweeping towards them. Every now and then the window that looked on to the backyard vibrated with a buzzing sound as thunder cracked. It was fairly quiet in the kitchen, though. And at least we’ll be dry here, Colin thought, taking a biscuit. Safe and dry. Though in fact, he realised, he didn’t feel safe. Not really. There was an unpleasant feeling in the kitchen, somehow. It wasn’t just the rubbish in the box, and the general air of neglect. It was … an atmosphere that was cold and a bit inhuman. Again he looked at Tara. Her eyes were darting around the room. Colin looked around, too. He saw an ancient wood stove, a narrow electric stove that didn’t look much newer, a grubby electric jug, a deep, grimy-looking sink made of some sort of dark, speckled stone with a few chipped mugs upended on the draining board, a cream-painted dresser with tinted glass doors, a noisy old fridge and … And then he saw something that didn’t belong. At the far end of the big room stood an elegant little writing desk. The desk had been brought to the kitchen from somewhere else in the house, he was certain. Someone — maybe the tow-truck driver — had used it to keep notes about the renovations. Colin saw that instantly when


he went to look. The top of the desk was covered with pale, ragged rings where mugs of hot tea had stood, and it was littered with paper — lists of measurements, scribbled drawings, hastily written sums … The drawers underneath were empty. The pigeonholes at the back were empty, too, and thickly filmed with dust. But the desk was beautifully made. It was the work of someone who loved wood. Like Grandad, Colin thought, his heart twisting in his chest. Grandad who died owing so much money to the bank that we had to sell the property, move to the city, leave everything we loved behind … ‘This is really nice,’ he found himself saying aloud, his hand on the scarred surface of the desk. ‘It’d be worth fixing up. That guy — the tow-truck guy — probably doesn’t realise. We should tell him …’ ‘Yes, we should certainly do that,’ Mrs Fiori said with false heartiness, eyeing the little desk doubtfully. ‘You like old furniture, do you, Colin?’ Colin nodded. Already he regretted opening his mouth. He saw that Grace was looking amused. Lucas hadn’t even bothered to look round. They probably thought that anyone Colin’s age who cared about old furniture must be incredibly boring. Well, that was their problem. ‘Sometimes desks like this have hidden compart- ments,’ he said, out of some reckless desire to prove he knew what was what. And he felt around, found the right places to press, and with satisfaction heard Grace’s


squeak of amazement as a shallow drawer slid out of hiding below the main central drawer of the desk. The secret drawer wasn’t empty. Someone —probably years and years ago — had used it to keep some special things safe. His fingers tingling, Colin stared down at the items fitted like jigsaw pieces into the shallow space. At the back was a long, narrow book with a faded black cover. In one corner he could see the glint of gold. But the thing that riveted his attention was a bigger book that lay across the front. The book was covered with paper painted in a marbled pattern of blue and green that seemed to move like water. Pasted on the front, right in the centre, was a white label with a border of feathery green leaves enclosing a beautifully hand-lettered title. Colin twisted his head sideways so he could read the words.

Colin felt a tingle run down his spine. He picked up the book, felt its weight in his hands. For some reason he looked round at Tara Berne, still standing by the door. Tara stared back. Her pale lips were parted. Her greeny-brown eyes looked enormous. Gingerly, Colin opened the book. The first page repeated the title. He turned it over and his eyes watered


as vivid colours leaped out at him. Dust? Colin thought confusedly. Paint fumes? After all this time? He rubbed his dazzled eyes with his sleeve and looked down at the page again. This time he saw the picture clearly. It was amazing! He’d never seen anything like it. The picture showed a wizened old bee wearing an apron and a starched white veil standing in the doorway of a giant beehive. The bee was looking down at a tiny human baby lying on the doorstep, wrapped in a black shawl patterned with red roses. Colin told himself that the picture was just an illustration for a children’s story, but somehow he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it. It was so lifelike that he felt as if he were inside it, actually standing on the porch of the hive, looking down at the baby in its strange red and black shawl … ‘What’s that, Colin?’ Mrs Fiori asked sharply. Grace was already swinging herself across the room. She crowded beside Colin to look inside the drawer. ‘Hey, look, there’s some gold jewellery back there!’ she exclaimed. Her hand reached out … ‘Don’t touch, Grace!’ Mrs Fiori ordered, hurrying over to look. ‘You can’t go rummaging around in someone else’s things!’ ‘Colin’s already taken something out!’ Grace protested, but she reluctantly edged aside so that the teacher could stand at the desk with Colin. Mrs Fiori looked down into the secret drawer, then at the open book in Colin’s hands. She frowned slightly.


‘I don’t think we should …’ she began, then stopped and cleared her throat. ‘I only want to look at it,’ Colin said, keeping a tight grip on the book. ‘I’m being careful.’ Mrs Fiori didn’t say anything. Colin managed to look away from the beehive painting and glance at her. Her eyes were moving slowly from the picture to the handwritten text that filled the opposite page. Colin had barely noticed that the text was there. He’d been too interested in the illustration. But now he looked. The text page had a heading. It was the same as the title on the front cover of the book. His Name Was Walter . A little nerve flicked in one of Colin’s eyelids. His fingertips tingled. He flipped over more pages, saw more text, caught glimpses of more vivid pictures. Every picture seemed to introduce a new section of text, and every section ended with a tiny painting of a small brown bird. He went to the end and saw that the book had been filled — filled to the very last page. ‘It’s a whole story,’ he said slowly, turning back to the beginning. ‘Yes,’ Mrs Fiori murmured. ‘Who wrote it, I wonder? Who painted all those pictures? How long ago? And why was it hidden? It might have been in that drawer for years! For all we know, we’re the first people to see it since it was finished.’


That caught Grace’s butterfly attention. She limped quickly around to Colin’s other side and craned her neck to look at the book for herself. ‘Oh, it’s just a kids’ story,’ she said in disappointment. ‘It’d still be fun to read it, though. We’re stuck here till the taxis come, and there’s nothing else to do.’ Her eyes started to sparkle as inspiration struck her. ‘Hey, Mrs Fiori, I know! We could read it out loud!’ She nodded vehemently as the teacher turned stiffly to look at her. ‘This is a history excursion, right? If someone reads the story, and everyone else listens, it’ll be like what people did in the olden days, before TV and the internet, right?’ Lucas, still sitting at the table, was heard to sigh deeply. This seemed to make up Mrs Fiori’s mind. ‘That’s a great idea, Grace,’ she said warmly. ‘Much better than passing the book around. We don’t want to damage it.’ ‘Can I go first?’ Grace begged, practically jumping up and down. ‘It was my idea!’ She sounded really childish, and her eagerness should have been annoying, Colin thought, but somehow it wasn’t. He was getting to know Grace Leslie a bit better now. Grace wasn’t really pushy and conceited, as he’d thought watching her laughing with her friends and ignoring everyone else. She was just very enthusiastic, and so full of energy that she mostly did and said the first thing that came into her head.


Mrs Fiori smiled. ‘No, Grace. Colin found the book. He should read first.’ Colin swallowed, appalled. This was like his worst nightmare. ‘Oh — no — um — I’m not a very good reader,’ he blurted out. ‘You’ll be fine, I’m sure,’ Mrs Fiori said firmly, and he knew she’d shaken off the spell of the book and returned to brisk teacher mode. She’d made up her mind to give the quiet new boy from the country a place in the sun, and the new boy from the country had no chance of getting out of it. ‘We’ll sit at the table. Just shut that drawer again, will you, Colin, before we start?’ she added, glancing at Grace as if she didn’t trust her. Grace opened her eyes very wide, but it was true that her attention had strayed back to the open drawer as soon as she realised she wasn’t about to read. Colin did as he was told. ‘What can’t be cured must be endured.’ That had been one of his grandfather’s favourite sayings. Grandad would say it when there was drought, when the rains came early and wrecked the wheat, when a bill was bigger than expected, when the hens didn’t lay, when there was no marmalade left for breakfast. The old man’s voice was echoing in Colin’s head as he carried the book to the table feeling as if he were walking to the gallows. He could dimly hear Mrs Fiori ordering Tara to come and sit down between her and Colin, ordering Lucas not to get up, ordering


Grace to leave the desk alone and hurry up, this was her idea … Colin sat down at the table and waited stolidly for Grace to sit down. Then, his ears on fire, he opened the book, showed the picture of the baby outside the hive, and began, haltingly, to read.


nce upon a time,’ Colin read , ‘in a dark city far away, there lived a boy called Walter who had nothing but his name to call his own. A name does not sound much, but it was everything to Walter, because only he knew what his real name was. Does this sound strange? Perhaps it does, but it is true. It happened this way— Lucas muttered something under his breath. Colin faltered and stopped. ‘Be quiet, Lucas!’ snapped Mrs Fiori. ‘If you’re not interested in the story, don’t listen! But don’t spoil it for everyone else! You can leave the table if you want to, but stay where I can see you, if you don’t mind.’ Lucas looked at her impassively and didn’t move. Mrs Fiori thinks he’s got a computer or a phone stashed away somewhere, Colin realised suddenly. When she took Grace’s phone on the bus, and asked if anyone else had anything, Lucas just kept quiet and looked just like he’s looking now. That’s why she’s picking on


him. That’s why she made him stay with us instead of walking to town — so she could keep her eye on him. Suddenly he felt quite sorry for Lucas Cheah. If computers were what Lucas loved, and what he was good at, why should he be forced to be bored out of his mind by having to go along with someone else’s idea about what was important in life? ‘Go on, Colin!’ Mrs Fiori said. Colin cleared his throat, allowed himself another quick glance at the painting of the baby on the hive doorstep, and began reading again. One night, a newborn baby wrapped in a black shawl printed with red roses was left on the porch of the giant beehive that was the city’s Home and School for Orphans. That baby was Walter. He was found at sunrise by a wizened old worker called Ida, who carried him inside to the Matron. The Matron looked down at the sleeping infant without a smile and with no surprise. It was not the first time a baby had arrived at the hive in this fashion, and it would not be the last. Pinned to the red-rose shawl was a lock of brown hair and a note in weak and straggling writing. The note meant nothing to old Ida, for she had never learned to read, but the Matron could read it well enough. It said, His name is Walter . It so happened, however, that there were two other Walters in the beehive already, so when the Matron made out the child’s official papers she gave him a name of her own


choosing, to avoid confusion. In the Matron’s stern opinion, the baby’s mother had given up the right to name him when she left him to be cared for by others. And it could not matter to the child. Later that day, in fact, casting a practiced eye over the new arrival lying so quietly in his cot, and seeing how feeble he looked, the Matron wondered why she had bothered to give him a name at all. He would probably die in a day or two, anyway. But Walter did not die. Old Ida, who for her own secret reasons took special charge of him, somehow coaxed him through those early weeks. He did not thrive, but somehow he clung to life. When he was less than two months old a great plague came to the city, carried, it was said, by soldiers returning from a foreign war. The plague swept through the hive and many were struck down, the stern Matron among them, but Walter survived. So did Ida, and whether this was a good thing or a bad one for Walter, the reader will have to decide at the end of this tale. In the years that followed, Walter was treated no better and no worse than any of the other orphan boys who lived in the hive. The food he was given was tasteless, but enough. The bed he slept in was hard, but safe. The clothes he wore were rough, but kept him warm. School lessons were dull and droning, but gradually he learned all that the bees thought it right for him to know. He was quiet and obedient, so he largely escaped the beatings dealt out to rowdier boys for the sake of their souls. The name he was called was not his own, but he did not know this, so answered to it perfectly well.


He was constantly told by the bees that he should feel grateful for all he was given, but in truth he did not feel much gratitude. He did not feel very much of anything, for in babyhood a protective shell had begun growing around his tender heart, and by the time he was seven years old, it was complete. He was rarely very happy, but rarely very sad either. The workers who cared for him knew their duty, and most did all that was proper, but he never heard a loving word or saw a loving face. He was never alone, but he was always lonely. He lived in a beehive, but he had never tasted honey. At night, when the other boys in his dormitory had gone to sleep, Walter thought he could hear the close darkness humming with ghosts. The ghosts of lost boys. The ghosts of the numberless bees who had lived, worked and died in the hive. Sometimes, though not very often, he thought of his mother. Had she been too poor to keep him? Had she been forced to give him up? Or had she simply longed to be rid of him? He had no way of knowing one way or the other. And after all, what did it matter? The result was the same. And so Walter lived, and grew. Since he is the hero of this tale, it would be pleasant to be able to say that he grew up tall, strong and handsome, but he did not. Some of the orphans who swarmed around him were perfect pictures of healthy young manhood, and were much admired. Some were plain, cheeky mischief-makers who made the other boys laugh. Some were hulking bullies who were hated and feared. But Walter was too quiet and undergrown to be either admired or


feared, and his face was too delicate to be thought handsome in those days, and in that place. He had a few friends who were as quiet as he was himself, but the threads that held the group together were frail, spun by loneliness rather than by real affection. They broke easily and without pain, as Walter found with only mild surprise when his fourteenth birthday came and it was time for him to leave the hive and begin working for a living. There was a long silence when Colin reached the little bird picture that finished the page, and stopped reading. He looked up, carefully not meeting anyone’s eyes. He became aware that lightning was flickering outside the kitchen window, that the thunder was much louder. The window pane was streaming with water. Rain was pelting down. He hadn’t even noticed it begin. He supposed he’d read very badly, though strangely enough he didn’t feel as if he had. The time seemed to have gone very quickly, the words had slipped easily from his eyes to his tongue, and after the first couple of sentences he hadn’t stumbled at all. ‘That’s the end of the section,’ he said awkwardly. Grace, sitting opposite him, gave herself a little shake as if she were tossing cobwebs out of her eyes. ‘It’s awful that he had to start working full-time at fourteen !’ she said.


Mrs Fiori stirred. When she spoke her voice sounded a bit slurred, and Colin wondered if she’d been asleep. ‘It seems young to us now, Grace, but it was once quite normal. And of course, in lots of other countries of the world, right now, children start work even younger. You know that, surely!’ ‘Yes, but the writer shouldn’t have made Walter do it!’ Grace retorted. ‘It’s not fair! And I hate the way that Matron changed his name!’ ‘It’s just a stupid fairytale!’ muttered Lucas, and even Grace was so surprised to hear him speak that she fell silent. Colin felt a timid hand on his sleeve. ‘Read some more,’ said Tara Berne. ‘Yes, Colin, keep going,’ Mrs Fiori urged, a bit too obviously delighted that Tara had ventured out of her shell. So Colin turned the page, and at once was transfixed by another illustration. This picture was dark and gloomy. It showed a dim cave filled with rows of high desks where mice wearing eyeshades and white shirts with stiff collars sat chained to tall stools, their heads bent over their work. At the far end of the cavern, on a raised platform, a hawk in a business suit brooded, surrounded by boxes of gold coins. Just looking at the painting made Colin feel trapped. He could almost smell the cavern — he could smell the ink, the dusty paper, the dank, stuffy air and the


greasy hair of the chained mice. He could almost hear the scratching of pens and the scuffling sound of bats flapping in the shadows. ‘Oh dear, that’s not very happy-looking, is it?’ said Mrs Fiori, glancing anxiously at Tara. ‘It’s probably just how it seemed,’ said Tara, who looked quite composed. ‘To Walter, I mean.’ ‘Let’s see!’ Grace begged. And reluctantly Colin turned the book around to show her. She looked at the picture and made a face. ‘Are those bats in the corners? Erk! I hate bats!’ ‘How many do you know?’ asked Lucas, and she made a face at him. And at that very moment there was a mighty crash of thunder directly overhead and the lights went out. Grace screamed. Tara whimpered. Lucas swore. Mrs Fiori groaned. Colin, thinking loftily that he’d obviously lived through a lot more blackouts than these city people had, turned in his seat and felt for the torch he’d put in an outside pocket of his backpack. He flicked the torch on, and everyone exclaimed with relief. It’s such a little light, Colin thought, holding the beam steady. It shouldn’t make such a difference. But, he had to admit, he felt better, too. ‘There’s a candle on the sink,’ said Lucas. His voice was a bit shaky. Colin turned the beam of the torch towards the sink. On the draining board, sure enough, was a long white


candle stuck to a cracked saucer, with a box of matches beside it. ‘I suppose this happens quite a bit out here,’ said Mrs Fiori. Her voice was shaky, too. She got up, lit the candle, and brought it back to the table, placing it carefully right in the centre. Colin switched off his torch. Flickering yellow light played on the faces of the people sitting on the benches. Behind them, shadows crawled. For some reason the room seemed much quieter, so that they all became aware of the subtle sounds of the house — creaks, little scuffles and taps, and the soft whistling of the wind through every gap and crack. Grace glanced nervously over her shoulder. ‘I’m sure the lights will come on again soon,’ Mrs Fiori said, determinedly cheerful. ‘In the meantime, Colin, why don’t you read us another chapter? Use your torch — I don’t want you to strain your eyes.’ Colin flicked the torch on again. Beneath his fingers, the painting of the cave leaped into startling life. The mice seemed to tremble on their stools. The hawk’s eyes seemed to glare straight into his. He turned to the text beside the picture.


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