"Griffin tears are believed to have the power to heal even the most grievous of wounds."
Form 5C's math teacher, Martin "Sarky" Sharky, paced the classroom as he spoke, waving my rough notes around like the Olympic torch. Chelsi Morgan gave me a look of phony sympathy, and the rest of the class giggled.
Sharky then moved to the centre of the room, rocked back on his heel, and pivoted slowly through 360 degrees so everyone could see his smile of derision. Then he faced me again.
'"Griffin tears," Francesca Shaunessy? Can you explain what "Griffin tears" have to do with algebra?'
I stood at my desk with all eyes on me.
'I finished my worksheet,' I mumbled. 'I'm writing an essay on mythical beasts for English homework.'
His hamster-like cheeks bulged even more. 'Homework? You're doing English homework in my class?' He screwed the piece of paper up into a ball and aimed it at the wastepaper bin. It hit the rim and bounced back, setting off another round of giggles.
Sharky's face flushed with embarrassment, and he took it out on me.
'Stay behind when class is dismissed. You can spend the entire lunch-hour writing lines.'
In my blazer pocket, my hand curled around the note giving me permission to go home at midday. Mum had scribbled it out over breakfast; by now she should have rung the dogs' trust to explain I'd be collecting Bally.
'Sir I can't, I've got a note – I'm going home at lunch time.'
Wordlessly he held out his hand. Sharky's lips mouthed as he read, reminding me even more of a hamster nibbling on a sunflower seed. His sarcasm soared. 'Of course visiting the local dogs' home is so much more important than your education. Okay Miss Shaunessy. You can sit down now. Tell your parents you'll be late home on Monday. You've got two hours detention after school.'
As though I hadn't suffered enough humiliation, Chelsi Morgan defended me:
'Sir, Frankie has to pick up her brother's dog.'
Now all the eyes that were on me were pitying. Don't look at me like that, don't feel sorry for me. Tommy's still alive, my brother isn't dead yet. Where's there's life there's hope, isn't there?
Poppy, Chelsi's best mate, whispered to her – in a fake whisper designed to be overheard —'Maybe that's why she was reading about griffin tears – you know.' .
'Don't be ridiculous Poppy," Sharky admonished, without bothering to turn his head, so missing the evil glare Poppy gave him, then me.
Sharky slapped mum's scribbled note onto my desk and stalked back to the board. He began writing out equations, pressing the marker so hard against the white board that it squeaked. Beside me, Annette whispered 'sorry'.
I ignored her. Obviously I'd told my best friend I wouldn't be in afternoon lessons, and why. I hadn't asked her to keep it a secret, I'd just assumed she wouldn't mouth off to Chelsi and her set.
The bell rang, followed by the clatter of thirty chairs being scraped away from desks.
'But sir, we'll be late for lunch.'
'Thank Miss Shaunessy.' Sharky tapped at the board. 'This is your homework for the weekend. Copy out these questions and hand your answers into the staff room first thing Monday morning.' The class groaned.
'Thank Miss Shaunessy.' The sarcastic bastard repeated and, smiling like the joker out of Batman, he strolled between desks, twirling the pen in the air and catching it as he went. The metal door squeaked a complaint as he left the room, and me to my classmates' scorn.
'Way to go Frankfurter.' Even the class nerds muttered under their breath as they scurried out the room. Peter Roberts stopped at my desk.
'You’re doing my bloody homework,' he said, 'and you better make sure you do it right.'
He shoved my head down against the desk as he left, uttering a swear-word that made my cheeks sting.
'Pete! Don't be so crude.' Chelsi hurried after him, flashing me another look of fake sympathy as she went.
I hated them both. Chelsi more than her foul mouthed boyfriend. If she lived in America, she would be chief cheerleader. Sadly for her, she lived in nowhere-ville, but that didn't stop her wearing short skirts and tight jumpers and jumping up and down manically every time Pete and his stupid football team scored a goal.
Annette sat beside me in silent solidarity. I swung my hair forward, creating a curtain between us.
'Frankie, I'm so sorry – you didn't say not to say anything.'
'That's because I didn't think you'd rush over to that lot and start mouthing off about me and my family.'
'I'm sorry Frankie, they just wanted to know where you were at break-time, and one thing led to another and next thing I was telling them about Bally going missing – I'm sorry Frankie.'
Refusing to look at her, I swept out the classroom, keeping my head high and blinking back tears.
It doesn't matter, I told myself, it doesn't matter. Only forty-three days to go and I'll be sixteen and no-one will ever be able to tell me when to stand up and sit down so they can bawl me out in front of a whole classroom again.
But right now, I was free from school for hours and hours and hours, and even better, I wouldn't have maths again until Wednesday.
I scooted past a gaggle of sixth formers mooching around the lockers chatting about their plans for the weekend. Their tie-less shirts hung outside their trousers, just to show they were rebels – rebels who chose to return to this shithole school as sixth formers rather than try for a half decent college – and almost tripped over a little second year, bent double, tying his shoelace.
'Sorry sorry, can't stop' – I continued with my dash to the bus stop. Behind me the rebel sixth formers cat-called and a piping treble screamed 'I'm telling my brother you knocked me flying – you stupid bitch!'
But I didn't care – the bus was only twenty yards away from the stop outside the school gates, and I ran like the hounds of hell were behind me to catch it.
Once on board, I began to relax. In twenty minutes, I'd be reunited with Bally. He'd be so pleased to see me – I realised suddenly I hadn't bought his lead, or even any money. Never mind, Mum will have sorted that all out over the phone, I comforted myself, gazing out the window as green fields bordered by darker trees flashed by. Not long now, and I'll be walking Bally home through those fields, back across country.
As though conjured up by my mind, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a dog that could easily have been Bally's double, loping along with his master. Before I could look closer, they'd vanished into the woods.
There wasn't an official halt outside the dog's trust, but the driver pulled up at the mouth of the drive. A billboard advertised happy smiling dogs of all shapes and sizes, from the clowns of the dog world, Jack Russells, to an aristocratic Afghan Hound. Hoisting my rucksack higher onto my shoulder, wishing I'd thought to at least bring a couple of biscuits for Bally, I began walking down the long drive. Sometimes, while walking in the woods, I could hear a crescendo of barking, but not today. I stepped aside as a blue estate car drove past, a man at the wheel, a woman next to him. Sandwiched between two kids in the back seat, a collie type sat to attention. Its ears pricked and its tongue lolled with delight, while the kids enthusiastically patted his coat.
Luckily the purpose built kennel blocks were located behind a converted farmhouse, which served as an administration offices, while upstairs had been converted into a grounds' keeper's flat. Yes, this place had grounds. Despite my visions of Bally shivering in squalor this place was a canine five star hotel: Each kennel was supposed to be the size of a single bedroom, and have under floor heating. Or so I'd been told: although the trust held open days and dog shows, and was only two miles outside the village, this was my first visit.
There were only four vehicles parked in one corner of the staff carpark, two of them dog wardens' vans, but the visitors' car park was full. They weren't all here to choose a dog. There were tea-rooms at this place, and people visited just to walk around the kennels, to ooh and ahh over the 'dear little doggies.' I bet they also went to zoos to point at the monkeys and shudder at the reptile house. Tommy used to laugh at me when I mouthed off about animals in captivity, pointing out that it kept the money rolling in and the animals relatively safe. Then he'd pretend to be serious and ask if I had plans to campaign for goldfish to be liberated from their bowls.
'Can I be of any help?'
I shook out of the daydream - the question was delivered in the pained tones of someone who'd been forced to repeat themselves – and smiled at the elderly woman perched on a barstool behind a swath of polished light oak counter. I'm dead certain there's a hairdressers somewhere especially for little old ladies; they nearly all have the same blue tinged cauliflower hair style.
'Hi, I'm Francesca Shaunessy, my mum called earlier – I'm here to pick up my dog.' I grinned as I said his name: 'Bally; he's a black Labrador.'
Raising her eyebrows, she looked me up and down, then wrinkled her brow.
' – do you mean Balkin Lad? He's gone. Your brother collected him barely half an hour ago.'
'What?' I clutched at the counter. For one heart stopping moment I believed her. Tommy had disconnected his drips and monitors, and clambering over the sides of his cot-like bed come to claim his dog.
As if talking to a simpleton she repeated 'Your brother – Frankie Shaunessy,' The furrows on her brow deepened.
'You don't look much like brother and sister. Frankie and Francesca eh?' Abruptly she jumped from her stool, even smaller standing than she was sitting, and hurried around to my side of the counter. Cupping my elbow, she guided me over to a chair.
'Are you feeling alright? You've turned white as a sheet.' Resisting the pressure to sit down, I shook her hand off.
'No I'm not all right. I'm Frankie – Francesca Shaunessy – you've given my dog away to some randomer who wandered in off the street.'
Her lips tightened as she realised what she'd done. If she hadn't looked so crumbly, I would have slapped her.
'I'm so sorry – he had a collar with the dog's identity disc on it – asked if we'd had a large black dog handed in. We only had one black dog by the name of Balkin Lad – and we'd already been told by Mrs Shaunessy that her daughter Frankie would be along mid-day to collect him.'
'Daughter! Her daughter!'
'Don't shout at me, young lady. I thought someone had got the message wrong. He knew the dog's name, and he had the collar and ID disc. He even said if my sister shows up, tell her I'll meet her at the usual place.'
'The word is "pardon," not "what." He said …'
I didn't stop to hear the rest. This was no random stranger. This was my stranger.
A man sat outlined against the brow of six acre meadow, a large black dog by his side. I stumbled towards them, clutching at the stitch in my side. By the time I reached the top of the hill and stood over him, all the furious insults I'd rehearsed on the nightmare jog here were useless. I glared down at him, struggling to catch my breath. Bally's tail thumped, but he made no attempt to cease worrying at the mammoth bone he held down with one paw.
Finally I managed 'That's my dog.'
Calmly unscrewing the lid from a bottle of water, he took a couple of swigs, then offered it to me. Despite myself I swiped the bottle from him, tipped my head back, and chugged down.
'Where's my griffin?' the man asked.
I clutched the now empty bottle, longing to chuck it at his head and snatch up Bally and run. But I doubted his temper had improved any since last night.
'Please – I don't know your name – but please – let me have my dog back. Please – it'll break my mum's heart.'
'Get me back my griffin and you can have your dog.'
'I'll call the police.'
He shrugged, looking completely unconcerned. 'Call for my griffin, and you can have your dog back.'
I surrendered, and tossed the empty bottle neatly into his opened rucksack.
'If I call your …griffin – and it doesn't come, will that satisfy you?'
He nodded. 'If you call with all your heart, and Balkind doesn't answer, you may have your dog back.'
Call with all your heart. I knew without asking what this meant. Inflating my lungs, and placing my hands either side of my mouth, I summoned up a cry from the heart.
The sound flooded the meadow. I sucked in air and called again. 'Baalll-kind.' I could feel two pairs of eyes on me, watching intently, Bally's ears were pricked. Before calling for the third time, I took a couple of steps away from my audience, and focussed on projecting my cry across the village, across the lakes, across the country if needs be.
I glanced behind me. The blond head nodded approval.
'That'll do.' Of course it would: Any griffin within a hundred miles would have heard that.
The man jerked his head towards Balkin. 'Take him.' He sat with his hands loosely on bent knees. Then with a casual glance at the horizon, rummaged in the bag at his side, drew out another meaty bone, and began to gnaw on it.
I stared. He glanced up, and tipped the bone towards me. 'Sorry – would you like some?'
'No thank you.' I responded with equal politeness. My eyes flickered towards the churchyard and he laughed, patting the ground beside him.
'Sit down. You really need to control your imagination.'
Right. A sword wielding weirdo who owned a griffin and liked his meat raw telling me to curb my imagination. But I sat down, careful not to sit too close.
The meadow's stubble prickled at my thighs, bare beneath my school skirt. I shrugged off my maroon blazer, spread it out beneath me, and stretched my legs out flat.
My stomach rumbled, embarrassingly loudly. I could murder a ham sandwich or even a packet of crisps right now. At my side, the bone-crunching continued in unison. At least only Balkin was drooling. I couldn't stand this any longer.
'How can you eat that?' I blurted.
He shrugged 'I'd prefer it cooked. But I don't have my fire maker with me.'
'Oh.' I glanced sideways. He'd cracked the bone open, and inside was a pinkish grey filling. He scooped it out and into his mouth with his fingers. I noticed he swallowed without chewing.
'You mean your griffin can breath fire?' I asked.
'No. Of course he doesn't breathe fire. I mean I've left my fire makings behind.' He waved the bone splinter towards the church. Then he swiped his hand across his mouth and tossed the bone to Balkin, and grimaced.
'Got to keep my strength up.'
I didn't know if he was joking or not. Twigs festooned his hair, his face still had smears of mud and traces of blood, but at least he'd lost the dungeons and dragons outfit. Wearing baggy khaki shorts and an even baggier tee-shirt, he looked like a grunger, but if he cleaned his face, he probably wouldn't attract a second glance in a crowd.
I glanced across rooftops to the horizon. On this typical early September day, the sky seemed painted blue. A red kite floated lazily over the common; if it drifted toward the crows' nursery, over to our left; they'd rise up in unison and drive the invader away. I turned back to the man.
'What's going on?' I asked him. 'Last night you were chasing me with a sword, today you're totally chilled.'
He frowned. 'It was a little cold last night, and I felt a chill this morning – but now…'
I interrupted. 'I mean – you seem relaxed – not disturbed.'
'Last night I was returning home when Balkind vanished into a mist. I went after him and found you gibbering like an idiot and Balkind flying off frightened out of his wits.'
He glanced at my short skirt and rather chubby legs. 'Besides, I thought you were a knave. You certainly cursed like a knave. I didn't realise you were just a little girl.'
'I am NOT a little girl! I'm nearly sixteen years old.'
'That many years!' he mocked, clearly enjoying my anger.
'How old are you?'
'Old enough to respect my elders,' he said. This guy really did have a talent for pushing all my buttons.
'So just because someone's old I should respect them?'
'Since older people have laboured longer and usually have more gold – then yes – I would say yes.'
'So just because they're older, and richer, I should respect them?'
'Because they've laboured longer, to provide for their children and their children's children. Yes. I believe so.'
He stood suddenly, shading his eyes with one hand. 'Your griffin's answered your cry.' Stooping, he placed a hand under my elbow and helped me to my feet. His smile was wide and his eyes full of warmth, and for the first time, I found myself liking him.
But there was no time to think about that. I followed the man's gaze and saw that Balkind had answered my cry. His wings barely flapped as he rode the thermals; as he neared us, he dropped his long narrow head, and a strange hoarse bellow filled the air again. He circled, a mere forty feet above us now. His wings flapped, like a sailboat tacking against the wind. Pointing his snout earthwards, and with forearms outstretched to brace against the ground, he touched down twenty feet away. I clutched at the stranger for dear life.
'There, not so frightening this time was it?' the man said. laughed, his happiness infectious, and I laughed too, as Balkind folded the last third of his wing span against his flanks. Keeping his wings folded against his body, his long body undulated and his neck curled so his chin almost tucked against his chest, and he snorted with pleasure and underfoot the earth rumbled as he gambolled over with an odd shuffling motion to greet us. "May I...touch him?" I asked. The man nodded.
The texture of Balkind's skin was a mixture of satin and silkiness. A dense pewter coloured fur covered his neck and head, which shimmered in the sunlight as his eyes darted from me to his master, then to Bally, breathing in the unique scent of each of us. Two barley sugar horns protruded from his head, and feathers lined the edges of his wings. His tail thrashed from side to side. That he was pleased to be amongst friends again was obvious. I turned to the stranger.
'Do griffin tears have healing powers?'
I blurted the words out without thinking:
The man looked at me, his strange blue eyes filled with scorn.
'You ask the silliest questions. I expect your tutors fight or draw straws over who is to learn you lessons.'
'The only silly question is the one you don't ask.' I said.
'Maybe so, but before speaking, you should ask yourself the question again, only slower.'
He turned away and rummaged in his bag again. Both dog and...griffin...stilled with anticipation as he dragged out another bone. I sincerely hoped he hadn't robbed the graveyard. With exaggerated calmness I repeated slowly:
'Do griffin tears have healing powers?'
'Yes of course. Just one tear could bring this bone back to life.' Then he tossed the bone to Balkind, who caught it in his jaws.
'Don't mess with me!' I warned – wishing I were a knave – I'd knock that silly supercilious smile off his face double quick! The man ignored me, and feeling about eight years old again, I turned my attention to his griffin. In a similar fashion to Bally, Balkind held the bone steady with one fearsome looking four-digit talon while he crunched it down in two bites.
Bally watched the bone disappear. He looked confused, as though to say where'd it go? Then he nudged at the rucksack, giving hopeful glances up to his new human friend, who was obviously thinking the same as me. 'Balkind and Balkin.' He mused, as Balkind ducked his head and placed his nostrils against Bally's broad head, sniffing as though he could eat the smell of dog.
'Balkin's short for Ballykinny Lad. We call him Bally for shorter,' I explained. For years Tommy had wanted a dog, comparing breeds and taking on extra newspaper rounds, and never missing a chance to bore anyone who cared to listen about what he was going to call his dog, and the hikes they'd have over mountains and wild places.
Canine Balkin snapped at griffin Balkind's nose, and with a final snort of disgust, Balkind whipped his head away, swivelling on that long muscular neck, and, without warning, thrust it into my chest.
Automatically my arms went up, and I found myself stroking, burying my finger tips in velveteen fur. I found his soft spot, right between the eyes, and knuckled the spot there. His eyes closed with bliss and a deep rumble shook his body, deepening until it shimmered against my bones.
'He's purring.' My arms were being to ache.
Shaking his head, the stranger scratched the side of the griffin's neck where it emerged from his shoulder, and with a sort of collapsing at his knees, Balkind fell to the ground. I half expected him to roll over onto his back.
Balkind's owner flopped to the ground, to sit just above the griffin, out of danger if Balkind did decide to roll. I sat a little closer, and it seemed natural when Balkind stretched out his neck and placed his head in my lap. I must have looked surprised at its lightness, because his owner said: 'Their bones are hollow. We feed them a special diet.'
I wondered just how many griffins he owned, and if he'd used the "Royal We" or if there were more like him back home, but more intriguingly wanted to know more about this "special diet".
"Really?" I asked.
'Hmm.' He didn't elaborate.
I continued stroking, and the rumbling purr started up again. With a grunt, Bally laid his head on the stranger's knee, and we could have been any ordinary couple out for a walk with their dog. And griffin.
'So what do they eat?'
'Mainly sixteen year old maidens.' He teased. I reached across and punched him.
'Joker? Oh – jester.' He seemed amused and content to just sit here, shooting the breeze.
'What are you waiting for, don't you want to go home' – it sounded strange to say it, but I said it anyway – 'back to your own world?'
He grimaced. 'I've tried. I've been back to ' he waved towards the woods and the boundary of the church wall. 'Last night I heard Balkind preparing to fly, and a scream – and I rushed forward blindly – straight into a pillar of stone carved like a figure with wings. So I went back to that point.' He shrugged, 'The portal, the opening between worlds isn't there.'
I stared at him. 'So you can't get back?'
'I'm waiting for dusk. The curtain between worlds is thinner at sunrise and sunset.' He sounded nonchalant. A thought struck me.
'Didn't you try this morning?' He didn't answer, but his silence spoke for him.
'I don’t understand – how can you sit there so calmly?'
'What would you have me do? Throw rocks at the sun to move it through the sky faster?'
I'd angered him somehow. He made a visible effort to control his temper, and went on more evenly. 'I can't allow myself to panic. There are stories, others from our world have visited yours and returned, and we have had visitors from your world who have "magically" disappeared.'
Reaching over, he chucked me under the chin, dropping his hand to stroke Balkind, now half asleep.
And in that moment, for the first time I believed in him. Until then, I'd been sub-consciously waiting for the punch line – half expecting the eager beaver director of this crazy reality show to jump out and confess to an elaborate prank. I felt incredibly sorry for him, and incredibly amazed at his bravery.
'Why did Balkind come when I called?'
'You have the gift. You're a "Griffin Cryer".'
'A "Griffin Cryer"? Then why has he never come before when I called for Bally?'
He shrugged. 'I don’t know. Why don't you ask him? Maybe he never heard you calling before.'
That made sense. I sat there, stroking a griffin's head, making small talk with some other world-er, and it seemed to make sense. I felt more at ease with this stranger than with Annette, for some reason. Apart from the hollowness in my stomach, I could sit here all day. The afternoon sun shone down, and I slowly rehearsed in my mind the questions I wanted to ask my new friend.
'Watcha Frankie! That's some ugly horse you've got there!' Postie John hiked by on sturdy shorts-clad legs, his morning round over, on his way back to the postmistress.
I managed to stutter a reply, but I was talking to his back, and he didn't respond.
'Horse? Is he blind and deaf?'
I giggled nervously. As usual, John wore his ipod earphones, and was probably listening to his beloved Led Zeppelin. Nice bloke, tragic taste in music. 'I suppose if you weren't expecting to see a griffin, your first thought would be horse.'
'Nonsense. The man's an idiot. Balkind has two horns, not one.'
'Wha – I mean, pardon?'
'Say "what did you say?" if you didn't hear or understand me. "Pardon" is for if you accidentally step on my foot.'
'Pardon is for when you step on my foot.' He repeated patiently, and I couldn't resist. The effect wasn't so good from a sitting position, but I managed to kick at his bare instep. 'Pardon.' Before I could shove Balkind from my lap and take off down the meadow, he pounced. Pinning my shoulders to the ground with one knee, he put my head in a vice, and knuckled the top of my skull until I begged for mercy between shouts and giggles and Bally licking my face.
Finally the torture stopped. Still catching my breath between snorts of laughter, I stood up, straightening my skirt and dusting off grass stains. Balkind watched with disdain, Bally did his "thank goodness we're on the move again" dance and the stranger reclined back on his elbows, as though he hadn't reduced me to an undignified heap of giggling schoolgirl.
'I'll get you for that.' I warned.
He closed his eyes to show his contempt for this threat. So I trampled on his stomach, only a gentle stamp, enough to knock the wind from him and give me a chance to escape. Even winded, he caught my foot and before the squeal left my lips, my heels whizzed over my head and I landed flat on my back.
'No – I'm sorry – I'm sorry – I didn't mean it!' I raised my hands defensively, screwing up my eyelids and cringing against the torment coming my way. Bally's barking grew more frantic. When I opened my eyes again, his face hovered over mine, and his eyes had darkened to midnight blue. Rolling away, he sat up abruptly. 'You'd better go on home now, little girl.'
I frowned, we were only having a game weren't we? Did he actually think I wanted him to kiss me or something? I felt a hotness in my cheeks. How arrogant.
'Well sod you! I'm going!' And I stormed off down the slope, Bally by my side, sensing that playtime was over. Behind me, Balkind bellowed his distress. A couple of figures pottering around in the churchyard paused in their grave tending and froze, fear on their faces as they spotted the outline of a griffin.
'Realistic isn't it?' I said, relieved when the two middle aged women, obviously sisters in their look alike pink trousers and matching tops, exchanged rueful glances with each other then smiled and agreed with me. Spinning on my heel, I marched back up the hill to the rudest man in this world or any other and the sweetest griffin I'd ever met.
Bally danced with delight, then charged away to his new friends. Alerted to my return, the arrogant sod sat up, putting an arm around Bally, the traitor dog.
'Back again, did you forget something? Your manners perchance?'
I scowled, 'You can't stay here. You're freaking out the natives. Take Balkind and wait for dusk in those woods over there – you don't want to be seen.'
'Why not? Though I suppose if all your villagers ask the same silly questions as you, it could become tiresome.' He yawned and stretched to show how tiresome he found me.
'Look – go and hide in the woods, right? Do you want Balkind to be taken away from you and put in a circus or something?'
He snorted with amusement. 'Anyone who wants Balkind can have eight inches of my sword first.' But he got to his feet, scratching Balkind's shoulder again, which seemed to be a signal.
The woods run behind the churchyard, skirting the meadow. These were the same woods that I'd seen from the bus window. You could walk almost to the neighbouring town through them. I've read that at one time, a squirrel could travel the length of the kingdom without setting foot on the ground. Two years ago, on a package holiday to Rome, I'd peered from the airplane's window astounded by the expanse of greenery that still covered this little island.
'Let's not part bad friends, I beg your pardon for any offence given. Walk with me.' He said, and since it wasn't out of my way, I did. My hand rested on Balkind's flank, and I wondered suddenly how it would be to soar through the air with the wind whipping through my hair; it must be a feeling of total freedom. My heart hammered faster at the thought.
'Would you like a ride on your griffin?'
I looked up, startled. 'Can you read minds?'
'No, but your thoughts are so transparent, they're written in your face. Would you like to ride Balkind?'
I shook my head, no, when I wanted to yell yes.
'It's more important for you to get back to your world. So far we – I mean – you've been lucky – but you can't take any risks.'
We'd reached the edge of the woods now, a rabbit path opened up, and I lead the way. The path skirted a swampy mess, one of a few lurking in these woods, before joining a wider path.
I pointed to the other side of the swamp, towards a grove of chestnut trees. 'If you wait there until dusk, no-one will see you.'
Already the brambles had sprung back; there was no sign that a griffin had passed this way.
'So this is goodbye then Francesca.'
It was the first time he'd said my name. I felt tearful suddenly. I nodded, 'This is goodbye.' I realised I didn't know his name.
'If I tell you my name, do you promise never to call me?' He teased, I must have looked startled, because he stroked my face with his fingers, circling it from temple to chin. 'Your thoughts show too clearly. Now you are a big girl, you must learn to hide them.' I slapped his hand away, half angry, half laughing.
'My name is Balkind Rider.' And laughing out loud, he strode off, calling behind him 'Come Balkind.' With a last look at me, Balkind followed obediently. No doubt he didn't want to be lost and alone again.
I stomped off in the other direction, heading for home, too angry to feel any sense of loss at parting from my griffin. Tomorrow, I would buy a dog whistle for Bally, and never call his name out loud again.
Instead of telling Bally off, Mum greeted him like the return of the prodigal son. He even had chicken for dinner. Tony pulled a face, but didn't say anything. He'd learned never to criticise anything concerning Tommy or Tommy's dog a long time ago.
The usual Friday night stuff happened, Tony left for work, me and mum got stuck into tidying the house.
'Thanks for picking Bally up love. Did school give you any trouble?'
We were on the last stage of clearing away dinner, mum washing up, me drying up. I rubbed the inside of a glass vigorously, making sure there were no water stains before putting into the cupboard, thinking it wasn't school that gave me trouble.
'Not really mum.' And a longing to know if my real trouble had made it home struck me. 'I've got to go round Annette's though – pick up some homework.'
Mum was immediately defensive. 'The phone hasn't rung.'
'She emailed me.' Thanks to mum, I don't have a mobile. I used to have one, in fact I've had several, but school keeps confiscating them. Mainly because of mum texting me several times a day to make certain I'm not dead. I heard Tony and mum arguing about this once. Mum had cried, and promised she'd stop smothering me, but still I was the only fifteen year old in the country not allowed out after dark without a good excuse. 'Lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice.' Tony had shouted at mum, and she'd agreed. I could have told them that statistically it does strike twice, and sometimes even three times in the same place. But I didn't, and hoped for more freedom, but it never happened.
'Make sure you call me when you get there.'
I sighed heavily. 'Her phone isn't working mum. That's why she emailed me.' My tone implied I'd already told her this, and only had to remind her because she was old and growing forgetful.
After showering, I threw on a grey tracksuit— a cheap Nike knock-off, but it was dark and no one would see me. I was just about to slip out the front door when a thought occurred to me. Entering the front room, I saw mum already had her pyjamas on, and was slumped on the couch, with Bally laying over her legs.
I scuttled between mum and the telly to pick up my Xbox controller. She heard me and sat up.
'What do you need that for?' Christ, every time I went out unexpectedly I had to go through an interrogation.
'We might play a bit of Xbox,' I lied. Mum sniffed. After dropping a kiss on her forehead, and telling Bally to settle back down, I left the house.
Instead of crossing the road and entering the common, which was asking for trouble with all the poaching that had been going on recently, I walked along the pavement for half a mile or so, then crossed the road. Chestnut trees lined the length of the drive leading to the church, and experience had taught me to walk in the middle of the road, especially during autumn.
The drive culminated in a turning circle at the church gates, and I stepped off asphalt onto the footpath running between Six Acre Meadow, and the church wall. It was slippery underfoot. People weren't supposed to but they tossed wilted flowers and stagnant vase water over the wall rather than carry them back to the compost heap. Ahead of me the woods loomed, and my vision grew dimmer. I used the church wall as a handrail.
Tommy had been walking along this very wall when it happened. He'd been showing off, base jumping, and backflipping, landing on his feet. After one such flip, Chelsi, the stupid mare, had clapped out loud, and my brother had looked back over his shoulder and lost his balance. As he fell, he clipped his temple against a headstone.
'Rest in Peace. Mary Howland 1845 – 1910. She was a gentlewoman.' Ironic eh? A dead gentlewoman had killed my brother.
Coping. The shaped stone under my hand which capped the top of the wall is called coping. I know all this shit because dad's an architect. Or he was an architect. Shortly after Tommy was moved from the specialist neurological department at Guy's hospital to a nursing home in Essex, dad upped sticks and emigrated to Spain. He's a painter now. Every time Tommy gets an infection, the nursing home has to call mum, to ask if she wants him resuscitated. This is because dad has given instructions for him not to be resuscitated. I sneaked a look at Tommy's notes once. "DNR?/Check with mother." I asked the school nurse what the abbreviation meant and she told me. She was careful not to look at me, and scuttled off before I could thank her. I suppose filing paperwork is pretty important.
'But that was years ago, and in another country.' I said out loud, climbing over the stile that lead to the swampy bottom part of the woods. It was even darker among the trees, but the path widened. Someone had festooned one of the giant chestnuts with wide blue ribbon, and tacked a football shirt with a handwritten poem dedicated to 'Grand-dad' underneath, and left some chrysanthemums at the tree's base. This kind of "pagan behaviour" inflamed our vicar, but despite his ranting and raving, he never managed to catch the culprits.
I reached the rabbits' track that circled the swamp, and immediately saw my quest had been in vain. The only indication that a large creature had rested here was an absence of complete darkness where brambles and undergrowth should be, and a saddle patch of luminous moss missing from the fallen log Balkind's owner had sat on to wait for dusk. I waited to be sure, unwilling to call out, uncertain of what might answer me.
Shadows flickered and shimmered on the edges of my vision, and every time I got a fix on one, another would move. I knew it was only my mind playing tricks as my eyes strained to focus into the darkness, and I knew the rustling of the undergrowth was caused by rabbits, or maybe rats scurrying about their nightly business. And I knew it was only an overactive imagination, but in the quietness, it seemed that listeners waited in the shadows, straining to hear my voice. My nerve broke, and I forged towards the blandness of the meadow, keeping well clear of the swamp, uncaring of the brambles catching at my legs. Behind me, the darkness settled again, and I leapt into the openness of the meadow where the only shadow was mine.
That night when I went to bed, I turned out the light and played Jeff Buckley over and over before falling asleep. "Hallelujah."
Julia Hughes, author of adventures that are out of this world, time after time after time.