Chapter 1 https://readingroomcafeproject.com/2017/04/16/saving-time-chapter-one-escape/
Chapter 2 https://readingroomcafeproject.com/2017/04/23/saving-time-chapter-two-rest/
Chapter 3 https://readingroomcafeproject.com/2017/04/29/saving-time-chapter-three-sleep/
Chapter 4 https://readingroomcafeproject.com/2017/05/07/saving-time-chapter-four-the-beginning/
It was Tag who woke first. The sleeping rolls they’d brought with them were thin and, Tag decided, useless. His bones ached from the rocks he’d slept on and he cursed the ground. It was only then that he realised they weren’t alone. A woman had built a fire next to them in the night and now sat on a bolder eating a fish.
“Mornin’, young’un.” she said without looking up from the flames. “You hungry?”
“I, er…” Tag shook Del awake. “I’m not up yet.” he said, suddenly glad that they had decided to sleep in their boots. “I don’t usually eat until I’m up…”
“Who the hell are you‽” Del shouted, jumping to her feet and pulling her knife from her boot. “And what do you want? And why have you lit a fire next to two sleeping kids in the night? That’s very creepy, lady.”
“I’m Jen.” said the woman, smiling. “I suspect we’re traveling in the same direction and the people looking for me don’t know what I look like and aren’t looking for a woman traveling with children. I lit a fire because you were cold. Do you want some fish?”
“No we do not want some fish!” snapped Del, lowering the knife and shaking her head in a mixture of confusion and disbelief. “Do we want some fish‽ Bloody hell.”
Tag smiled. There was something about Del when she was cross that made him laugh. He opened his pack and took out some oat cakes. “Do you want one? You could put some fish on it?” he asked, offering one to the woman, Jen.
The three of them ate the oat cakes with the fish on and discussed their plan.
“We’re going that way.” Tag pointed along the river with his knife. “Keeping the water on our right.”
“That suits me, if you don’t mind some company for a while. I can fish and keep guard.”
“We can look after ourselves.” said Del, haughtily, siting up straighter. “Thank you.”
Jen laughed. “Well of course you can. But there’s more safety in numbers…”
“Especially for you.” Tag joined in again, looking at his cross little companion. “You said someone’s after you.”
“Um… the police. I escaped from prison. They think I’m a danger to society.”
“Why?” Del leaned closer – eyes widening. Her mother had been a danger to society too.
“I protested against the selling off of the schools and hospitals and prisons, young’un. I’m a danger to society.”
Del grinned. “You can come with us, then.”
“What?” Tag stared at Del. “Have you gone mad?”
“It’s best to have dangerous women on your side than against you.” Del looked at the woman. If she could escape from prison, maybe others could too.
“I’ll travel with you a little way. No one is looking for a woman traveling with two children. Do you know where you’re going from here?”
“We don’t know, well…” Tag trailed off. “We’re going down stream until the two rivers merge. Then we should follow the other river back up the other fork. Does that sound like it could be the way somewhere?”
“You’re going to the Library?”
“Do you know the way?”
“Yes. If it’s ok with you I’ll travel with you most of the way, once the Library is in sight, though, I’ll have to leave you.”
So the three of them set out towards the Library. Jen told the children about her escape from the prison and her life before she’d been sent down. About her baby boy, who would be nine now, but who she hadn’t seen since he was born.
“Can they do that, then?” Del asked, horrified. “Can they just take a baby away?” but they’d taken her away, hadn’t they? It wasn’t the same because she wasn’t a baby, but they took her away.
“He was born in prison, it isn’t safe for little ones there. And I think my husband is dead, now. So I’m going to find my boy.”
Tag and Del looked at each-other, then at the ground. They knew the chances of finding a child alive in all of this. The world, Tag thought, is too broken for that. But out loud he said “When we’re done with our thing, we could help.”
“When you’re done with your thing I’ll be long gone. But thank you.”
“What’s his name and we can keep an eye out for him, at least.”
“James.” she said, smiling. “James Peterson. I saw a picture of him once, he has ginger hair and a cleft lip. I think it’s been repaired, though.”
Del looked at Tag. At least the boy was distinctive, but he wouldn’t have been adopted, he’d be in a group home somewhere, or he’d have been left on the streets to fend for himself. A child with a scar like that would be easy to spot, but not easy to place. They didn’t repair cleft lips as well as they used to. And people were crueler now.
“We’ll definitely keep an ear out.” Tag said, as cheerily as he could manage. “I’m sure you’ll find him soon, though.”
“And if we find him, we’ll keep him safe at the Curiosity Shop on Brook Street.”
And so it was that they were distracted when three men jumped out of the bushes and tackled them to the ground.
“We know you took it, boy.” snarled the smallest man. “We know you took it and now we want it back.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” screamed Tag. “What do you want?”
“Leave him alone!” shouted Jen. “He’s just a little boy.”
“Give me the book, boy.” the small man knelt on Tag’s chest and he could feel the pressure forcing the air out of him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” he choked and spluttered. “I don’t…”
One of the other men pulled Del to her feet and dragged her by her hair to the water’s edge.
“The book, boy.” Said the small man and punched him square in the face. It’s only cowards who hit children like that. In the old days Tag would have gone to the police and the small man would have been done for assault. Not anymore. Tag lay there, barely able to breath, bleeding from his nose and mouth, gasping for air but only getting sprays of his own blood.
“Don’t worry about me, Tag.” Del said. “You don’t have any book, I know this isn’t your fault.”
“Your girl is very brave, boy.” the small man grinned a cruel grin. “It’s a shame she won’t live to be brave much longer.” He turned to the man holding Del. Tag turned his head in time to see Del being shoved into the fast flowing water, her face confused and angry as she disappeared into the white churning water.
The men were so busy crowing over their success in pushing a little girl into a river that they didn’t notice that Jen had got up from the grass. She kicked the man who’d had hold of her in the front of his knee and he dropped in agony to the ground, then she shunted the other man over into the churning water. At last, she crossed to the man who was knelt on top of Tag’s chest and hauled him up by the hair.
“Tag, get Del.” she shouted as she dragged the man stumbling across the gravel and up the side of another concrete bridge. “You.” she was seething with rage. “Pick on little children. Hurt them. Well I’m bigger than you, you little worm.” and she kicked him hard in the chest, sending the small man toppling over the edge towards the river. Tag heard a crack as the man’s head hit a column of the bridge on his way into the icy waters. And then Tag was in the water too, searching for Del.
The cold bit into Delilah’s bones as she gulped desperately for breath and splashed wildly to keep her head above the crashing water. Tag had slipped under the surface of the churning river when he jumped in after her and she searched blindly for him as the water thrashed against her little body. Then a warm hand gripped her wrist and tugged her out of the river.
“Tag!” she shouted as she was heaved, spluttering, onto the bank. “Tag!”
“Shh.” Jen smiled, wading chest deep into the water again and bracing herself against the current. “You wait there, I’ll get him.” and she disappeared below the surface.
The river bed was strewn with debris and the sinking boy was bound to be caught up on that, rather than headed for the weir to be dashed on the rocks like the men. Her head came up above the water as she took another deep breath before plunging back under the surface. Del was cross. She didn’t know why, but she was cross that this woman was saving Tag. Little did she know, but she would have her chance, soon enough.
“Well…” Jen laughed. “Turns out you two are in just as much trouble as me!”
“At least our bad guys aren’t the whole government.” Tag giggled. “That’s over the top, you know that, don’t you? It’s completely over the top.”
The three of them lay panting on the warm grass and for a moment, for one perfect moment as Jen looked at the laughing children drying in the sun, she was happy. Tag sighed. There could be families, he supposed, that were more than the people you were born with. He looked at Del and imagined having his tea with her twice a week. He imagined the cake and the hot fires and her.
The strange woman was true to her word and stayed with the children until The Library was in sight. It rose out of the lush green landscape grey and imposing and ancient, like a castle from a fairy tale.
“I can’t come any further. I owe that woman in there a favour. A huge favour, if we’re honest about it, and I really don’t have time to pay it back at the moment.” she smiled. “But you’ll be ok. Just don’t use the path. And let her know you’re there as soon as possible. So she can take down the defenses. She’s an odd one, a very odd one, that Librarian.” Jen smiled a strange smile. “Odder than me, even. Just be careful of her.”
Join me next Sunday for chapter six, The River
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