Mr While gave Tag a scrubbing brush on a stick, a bottle of soap and a clean warm towel and Tag ran up the stairs and drew himself a hot bath.
He lay in the piping water, soaking away months of tension and grime and he wondered. He wondered what the old man wanted him to do. It had to be something bad. And he wondered why the old man thought he’d have some clothes that would be Tag’s size. There were no boys living here, as far as he could tell. Just Del. Del. Why was she calling herself Lila now? He wondered that too. The water lapped about the tub as he moved to rub soap into his longish, blond, greasy hair.
By the end of the bath the water was grey with filth and beginning to cool.
Tag smiled, content. The towel was thick and soft against his bony body and drew the water from his skin quickly. He pulled on a pair of socks that weren’t his and a new pair of underpants that he took from the packaging. The trousers were a little large but were warm and strong. They’d been patched at the left front pocket, but neatly, and they were clean. The shirt was stiff. He wasn’t used to wearing a shirt, but it wasn’t too smart and he thought he’d probably get away with it. The jumper that he’d been given was thick and the sleeves were long and, if pulled down hard enough, would cover his hands.
Last of all, Tag reached for his boots, checked the strapping. He sighed. It was still there. His fingers felt the cold metal of his knife. His knife. If things went badly with this he was pretty confident he could get out of it. The knife was the only thing he owned. He pulled on the boots. They were tight and still damp, but the clean dry socks felt good on his clean dry feet. He wriggled his toes. He sighed again.
Clean and warm and dry Tag crept down the stairs as quietly as he could. Not that he wanted to spy on the mysterious Mr While and the girl with two names, but he didn’t want to disturb them, either. The delicious smell of cooking met him as he descended. He was still full of cake and tea from the breakfast. His mouth watered though. He paused on the bottom step and breathed in the hot steamy air. If lunch was ready it was time for him to go. People didn’t let strangers stay for two meals in a row, no matter how kind they were. Being kind didn’t stop people from being poor.
“We have to trust him, child. He already has the book, so he’s already part of this.”
“What is the book?”
“You’re too young. It’s dangerous.” Mr While hissed through is teeth.
“I’m the same age as Tag.”
“Well then! I’m not going to tell him either.”
“You’re being ridiculous. It’s a book. How dangerous can a book be?”
“Ridiculous? Ah! You are a child. You say ridiculous. You have no idea!”
“Then tell me! I have no idea because you have not given me an idea to have. If I have no idea it’s your fault!”
“Oh, oh dear girl. It’s so hard. I need to protect you from so much. I need to keep you safe. I promised your mother that I would keep you safe. If I tell you about the book, if I let you go out there for the hour, I will have failed her, failed you.”
“If you don’t tell me I’ll go.” deli’s voice was just as stubborn as it ever had been.
“Go where? There is nowhere else for you.”
“But I’ll go all the same, and the police won’t look for me – they don’t look for missing orphans, and you know it. There’s no money in finding missing orphans. I’ll be gone. And then you’ll have broken your promise good and proper. Ha!” she stared harshly at the old man, seething with hot, loud rage. She was furious now and this was the worst threat she knew to make to him. There was a moment too long of quiet. They stared at each other.
“You are not an orphan, child, your mother…”
“I’m not an idiot, Fitz.” she said, as kindly as she could muster, suddenly aware that it wasn’t this old man’s fault that her life had spiralled into the sewers. “I know that people don’t survive prison. Not anymore.” she smiled a sad smile and put her hand on the old man’s arm. Sometimes, more often now than she had before, she wished that she was an idiot. “I know that the government gives the prison some money to keep the prisoners. If they spend all the money on keeping the prisoners safe and fed there would be no money left over for the people who own the prisons.” she paused. She looked at the ground. “If prisoners die…”
“No. If prisoners die and the prisons don’t tell anyone they keep getting paid.”
“Oh Lila, you sweet, clever girl.” Mr While shook his head, sadly. “I’m so sorry.”
“If she isn’t dead yet she will be soon.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Tell me the connection, at least, between Tag’s book and the missing hour.”
“The book that Tag has is a magic book. It contains much magical knowledge.” Tag did his best not to snort. What a stupid thing to say! “With an hour cut out of time and that book a person could live for ever. Unfortunately, it is meant to be an hour cut out of their own time, out of a single life. As there are very few people left who could do that, the only hour available is my missing hour, but that is an hour out of all of time. If that hour is used up by a spell, the consequences could be catastrophic!
“If it isn’t returned in time, autumn will not come and there will be no harvest, no food, and since Britain has been cut off from trade with the other nations by the sanctions against us, there would be no way to import more, not legally. The entire food trade would be controlled by gangs. Even more of us would starve.
“If it is used up in the spell there will be no way of putting it back, no way to end the summer. The damage will be irreversible.
“Then there is the other possibility. If the hour is destroyed in the spell, it could be even worse than all of those things. Time will stop. Freeze. All of life on earth will pause. We would all blink into a stand still. We need to get that hour back. And to keep Tag’s book away from whoever stole that hour.”
“It’s not my book.” Tag interrupted, stepping off the stairs at last. “And if it’s going to cause all that trouble, couldn’t we just… destroy it?”
Lila and the Mr While stared at Tag. Then Mr While looked back at Lila, then to the empty glass on the dining table. He swallowed and cleared his throat. He licked his dry lips. And in a moment that seemed to drag out for an age he, made a decision.
“Lila, put the kettle on. I’ll get the birds out of the oven.”
Lunch was, it turned out, roasted pigeon with dandelion root and fresh leafy greens. Ammunition of any sort was very hard to come by these days, but Mr While was a crack shot and none was ever wasted. There were three golden birds on a roasting tray and, though he was still full from breakfast, Tag could feel his mouth starting to water.
“You’ll join us for lunch, boy?” Mr While asked, grinning a strange grin. “I like to see a child eat.” Tag smiled back and nodded.
That explained why Lila was looking so much better than she had when he’d last seen her. A healthier diet with more fat and meat in it.
“I keep time. That is my purpose here. That hour is mine to protect until the autumn and it is put back in at the end of British summer time. Without that hour, time will not work properly, the summer will stretch out and drought will dry the land and without the winter to rest, the ground will become barren. The insects that usually die off in the winter won’t do, and we’ll be overrun with plagues of them and the little food that does grow will be picked off. The rats that hibernate or die off in the winter won’t do, they’ll carry on breeding and spreading until there is no place safe from the biting vermin. Have you ever been bitten by a rat?”
The children shook their heads. “Well, when I was a baby in Germany, in 1942 a rat bit off my toe! When there are large numbers of rats and the people are weakened, the rats become bolder, more aggressive. And as people begin to starve they will become more aggressive. The more people who die the more frightened and dangerous those who are still alive will become. Soon there will be no one clearing the bodies from the houses or the streets and the gangs of cats and dogs that already terrorise us will grow as they too feed on the debris of humanity. Even without the threat of magic, life without that hour will be more brutal than it already is.”
The children sat in stunned silence. Lila’s hands, clenched around her hot tea, were white with tension. Tag’s face was stony still. This wasn’t how adults spoke to children. Adults didn’t admit the imminent danger of it all, they sugar coated things or they lied. Mr While looked at their innocent little faces and sighed.
“What does this have to do with my book?” Tag asked at last. “I mean, if I’m honest I heard about the magic and everything, but couldn’t we burn it or something?”
“Books,” Mr while said. “Are a strange and wonderful thing. Even ordinary books have magic.
Once a word is written down it exists. Words are supposed to be spoken, heard and either remembered or forgotten, but humans are so… creative and inventive. Since words have been written down they have begun to exist. Do you understand?”
Tag and Lila shook their heads. “Not really.” Lila admitted. “It’s all a bit… I don’t know. It’s gone weird. It seems like something from a fairy tale…”
“Don’t get me started on fairy tales!” Mr While stood up and reached to Tag’s plate. He took a knife and a fork and began stripping the meat from the bony little bird. “Fairy tales! A whole other kettle of madness! Fairies!” he passed the plate back to Tag. “Eat. I’ll tell you why we can’t just destroy your book, boy.
“Once words are written down they exist. Once something exists, even if it is not alive it can have a will, it wants to carry on existing. And magic words, well, magic words can make themselves stay. Even if their earthly book were to be destroyed, the words would stay and seek revenge. And to destroy a book with fire! Oosh no. No that would not do at all. Fire has a power all of its own. Fire is hypnotic. It can get into a brain. Vengeful magic words with fire on their side could be very dangerous. Very dangerous indeed.”
Tag thought back to Aldo Reloj, transfixed by the fire. There was something, now he thought about it, haunted about the way the old man had looked into those flames with his mechanical eyes. ‘It can get into a brain.’ He breathed deeply.
“So what do we do?” Lila asked, her voice shaking Tag from his thoughts.
“We find my missing hour and put it back where it belongs.” Mr While said. And we get this book somewhere safe. It belongs in a magical library somewhere.”
Tag looked at the book. If magic were real, how could any of this be happening? How could there be a Third Term? How could the government be so corrupt and so in league with such large tax dodging companies and so in control of mass media? If there was magic, surely it would have been used to stop all of this?
The questions must have been written clearly on his face.
“Who says magic is always on the side of good? You think all magicians were like Merlin? Magic is like music. In the right hands it is beautiful, in the wrong hands it can be the worst thing you could imagine.” Mr While smiled. “I have a good idea who could keep the book safe. Would you stay here this afternoon and this evening, and possibly tonight as I’ve never really done anything like this before, while I sort everything out? Then in the morning, if you want to help, Lila and you can go out into the world to take the book to safety. I can put myself to work to find out where the hour is.” he smiled at Tag. “Will you still help?”
“Yes. But I don’t believe in magic. I won’t believe in magic, it’s ridiculous. I do believe though, that the men who are after me are dangerous and that anyone they might be working for could be dangerous too.”
“Now you know the dangers, do you want to revise your terms?”
“Two hot meals a week. And a hot bath. And a wash of my clothes. Each week.”
“That sounds fair.” Mr While smiled and looked at the children. “We’ll go over the logistics of it this afternoon and you two can make a move in the morning…”
“Logistics?” Tag asked. He’d heard the word and knew sort of what it meant but he wanted to know for certain.
“The travel and timing details. Lila, could you go and make up a bed in the spare room for our guest? And light a fire in there? The summer is very cold this year…” his brow wrinkled above his eyes. Very cold… like it knew it had time for a long run up.
They spent the afternoon pouring over maps and packing as many provisions as could easily be carried into two small backpacks and sewing secret pockets into the inside of coats and clothing.
Mr While had been very young when he had first travelled, shrouded in fear, alone to an uncertain destination. In Germany when he was a child… almost 80 years ago. He had fled with his sisters and hadn’t packed well. There were several times they would have died had it not been for the odd kind stranger risking their own lives to feed three starving gypsy children. He wondered, not for the last time, if he was doing the right thing.
Tag fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. The clean crisp sheets and warm air and soft duvet took him back three years to when he’d had a home and his kind foster mother had tucked him up and read him a story. Before the government had changed the criteria for foster-adoption and he’d been sent back to the group home. He, apparently, didn’t require fostering with a family and a view to adoption anymore. He was too old and should live in a group home. No one mentioned that this would be cheaper. And since 4-tech had taken over a lot of privately run foster homes there was a real push to fill them up. But for now he slept. This little lamb, too grown up for his age, with all of the responsibility but none of the power. He slept and dreamt of magic.
Delilah Hackathon, Del to some, Lila to others, smiled to herself. What a clever ruse, to get her godfather to let her on the adventure. She would save the day and everyone would be proud of her and forget that it was her fault her mother went to prison and was probably dead and that her father had gone to Europe and would probably never come home. Yes. She’d save the day and prove to everybody. She was a good girl. They’d all see.
Everyone thought she was so young and fragile. Well twelve isn’t all that young. She’d show the lot of them. She smiled and fed the raven, Mortimer, who cawed quietly in the darkness. She’d show them all.
Join me next Sunday for chapter four, The Beginning
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