A word from Da Management: OK, so, this is an experiment. I’m putting a First Draft up here to a) hopefully get some feedback, b) see what changes between Drafts and c) do something fun. This is therefore not a finished work and I will post Draft 2, and subsequent drafts until I think it’s good.
There was once a girl who liked to work with the Elderly. Not many girls her age did, so her parents were very pleased with her. They liked the idea of their little girl volunteering in the community, providing a local solution to a global problem and forming a listening partnership with a previous generation which was a storehouse of wisdom that today’s world sadly lacks.
They were that sort of parent.
The girl, known to her parents as Sophie but known to her friends variously as Miss K, Lady K and Kiki (depending on some very subtle factors), wasn’t little. She was pretty much fourteen, and therefore a Young Adult, old enough to make her own decisions about clothes, music, boys and what to do with her free time. She liked working with the elderly because it meant that she could spend time with them in their homes. Old people’s homes were strange and interesting. They seemed darker and more cluttered than her own home. Sometimes there were photos to look at, sometimes there were odd ornaments to puzzle at or play with. She felt good about being needed by people who were grown up, even if they talked about things that she couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand. A lot of what the old people babbled about didn’t make any sense. It was old-days stuff, from back when TV wasn’t even in colour and before there was any good music and when people probably only ever did waltzes.
The other good thing about Old People was that they were forgetful sometimes. Some of the old people she helped had trouble remembering small but important things, like exactly how much money they had in their purse or where they had left the wretched thing in the first place. So sometimes, when she really needed money, she’d dip a cautious hand into that purse and take some. Not much. Never much. But a little money from lots of people soon came to a respectable total and she soon learned to keep her crimes small and infrequent. Her parents would have been proud of her foresight and mature approach. She was the Light Purse Fairy, wandering at will in the dark and forgotten spaces that sat, heavy with memories, scattered around the town like the last greying leaves of autumn.
And that should have been it. A story of a child who grew up to become a woman troubled by the crimes of her youth who salved her guilt with voluntary work and who, in her turn and in her dotage, was also fleeced by a callous child.
That would have been it, except for Mr. Wolf.
Mr. Wolf was the sort of man that neighbours think of as harmlessly eccentric. He was thin, bookish, slightly stooped. He wore glasses that had inch thick lenses which magnified his eyes in a startling manner. Some time in decades past, children who’d read fairy tales had called him Mr. Wolf, partly in reference to the game and partly in reference to Red Riding Hood (what big eyes he has!). A couple of generations of children had mocked Mr. Wolf, who went home every night with a book or two from the library, some more openly than others. He met the more overt mocking with a sneer, or with complete indifference. In years past, people had thought he might be rich because he never seemed to be at work, but as the years rolled by and his suit got shabbier without ever being replaced people concluded that he was a miser instead.
Mr. Wolf was old and should have been on the list of homes that Sophie would visit. Sophie liked to believe that her visits gave the old folks something to look forward to. The old folks did, although some of them were bitter at their abandonment by their own children and looked on Sophie’s visits as a callous way to save some pennies. That way, the local council or the government wouldn’t have to pay someone to see if they were dead yet. Mr. Wolf didn’t think like that, because he had told both the volunteer group and the local council he didn’t. He had also told everyone who would listen that he wanted nothing more from his twilight years than to be left alone, in peace.
Mr. Wolf should probably have known better. Where you can’t see a dull truth, local gossip will always imagine a fascinating lie. In this case, the notion that Mr. Wolf was keeping a treasure trove, an Aladdin’s Cave, of glorious but hazily defined stuff in his dark little house with the perpetually drawn curtains. There were persistent rumours that he didn’t trust banks and that he kept all his money in biscuit tins scattered around his home. If, at any point, he had thrown open his doors and shown the credulous that he indeed owned nothing (or that he did indeed have pots of money stashed willy nilly) then the rumours would have gone away. But there you are: if you met Truth and Mystery in a club then Truth would be dressed like someone who’s Mum buys his clothes and Mystery would be a swaggering lothario surrounded by glamorous boys and girls and you’d never believe that Mystery would be interested in you.
Which brings us nicely to the front door of Mr. Wolf’s house. The tiny walled front garden, swamped in shadows cast by the oversized and untamed vegetation. The paint on the outside of the bay window was the colour of milk left in strong sunlight for a week, peeling and chipped. The window itself seemed to be slumped, as if holding the outside world at bay had broken it’s spirit, and Sophie couldn’t see inside thanks to the grey glass and some heavy looking curtains.
The front door was the same colour as the paint on the window and she wondered, briefly, if it would be safe to touch any part of it. Eventually, she prodded the doorbell with a finger that she then rubbed on the sleeve of her coat, just in case. The bell made an unhappy plastic crackling noise, but didn’t actually chime, so she knocked instead. She was relieved when the impact of her knuckles on the door didn’t make a squish noise, but instead rewarded her with a satisfying knock.
“Don’t forget the rules” said a voice. Sophie looked around, but couldn’t see anyone. She shrugged. She’d imagined it.
“Be polite,” said the same voice “don’t accept any gifts, don’t eat or drink and don’t wander off the path.”
“Cuz we can see as how you ain’t got any education” said a second voice, and Sophie realised that the voices must be coming from people on the other side of Mr. Wolf’s wild hedge. She smirked, partly at herself for being the slightest bit startled and partly at the instructions that she’d heard. Then the door opened.
“Yes, yes, come in,” said Mr. Wolf.
Completely startled by his unexpected welcome, she stepped inside.
Beneath an overhanging bush – the sort that has leaves which are shiny, dark green and at a distance might be mistaken for scales, a garden gnome sat on a weathered mushroom and didn’t hold a fishing rod. The rod, along with the gnome’s place of pride at a pond, were now only distant memories.
“Odds on her coming out again?” asked the bush.
“You know I don’t like to gamble” said the gnome.
Mr. Wolf’s hallway smelled like newspaper, which wasn’t surprising since there were bundles of newspaper by the front door, surrounding the telephone table. Sophie didn’t recognise the phone at first because it was one of the old fashioned kind where the handset has to stay connected to the blocky black base unit. There were more bundles of newspaper and stacks of books on the stairs, all the way to the top, meaning that if you wanted to go upstairs you had a rather narrow path to walk, pressed hard up against the bannister rail. Mr. Wolf had a cupboard under his stairs, which Sophie approved of, although to open it you’d have to move more books and newspaper. Stepping carefully along the hall carpet, a musty and greying path between two strips of shiny wood, Sophie noticed that the bundles of newspaper were all different editions of the same newspaper. It was one of the semi-serious newspapers, the kind that liked to tell you what was wrong with the world on one page whilst hinting that you could ignore all of that if you were rich, thin and pretty on another. It wasn’t one her parents approved of, since the paper they read liked to tell you what was wrong with the world on one page and that it was all the fault of people who read different newspapers on another. Sophie didn’t read either kind because they moved too slowly.
They moved past a door on her left, which Sophie assumed was the sitting room, and on to the back of the house where Mr. Wolf lead her into his kitchen – a pretty big room dominated by a large and grumpy looking cooker with a battered and greying armchair next to it. In the middle of the room was a small kitchen table – the kind with fold-out wings that you have to set up if you want it to seat more than two people, the kind inexpertly covered in jaundice yellow paint except for the pale blue scarred and scratched formica veneer on the top. Sophie sat at the table, perching on the edge of a wooden chair that creaked even at her slight form. Mr. Wolf loomed; for a moment his grey hair, his dusty grey clothes and his long narrow face made Sophie want to run from the room and find a tree to climb before he sat back on his haunches and howled to the rest of his pack. Then he folded himself into his armchair and sighed.
“I’ve no money you know” he said. Sophie blinked. His voice was hesitant, as if he either wasn’t used to talking or as if he were nervous. What could he be nervous of?
“And the neighbours are either deaf or plugged into those little boxes…whatdoyoucallems…”
“iPods?” ventured Sophie.
“…walkmans…” continued Mr. Wolf, looking at the walls “…so I don’t expect they’d hear anything.” He peered at her through his brick thick lenses and gripped the arms of his chair.
“Sometimes I think they wouldn’t hear a bomb going off in here.” he said with a little smile.
That was when it occurred to Sophie that sauntering in here like she did with so many other houses might not have been the brightest idea she’d ever had. Something in the dry, papery air made her feel very small and quite alone. You read about things like this, saw things about them on the news – sometimes, children just disappeared.
They disappeared in a particular way. They’d leave home and never be seen again, and their parents would appear on the news surrounded by policemen and either bravely holding back tears or sobbing and heartbroken, begging for their little ones back. And although you never heard it said out loud, you knew they were so unhappy because somewhere out there a grown-up was doing, had done, would do, something to a child. Something so bad the adults wouldn’t talk about it, which made it something unspeakable. Importantly, Sophie had never heard of a case where a parent’s tearful pleas to not have something unspeakable happen to a child had ever worked. The child never, ever got left at a police station with a note saying “sorry” pinned to their coat. So while Sophie generally understood that old people were slow, frail and easily outrun – and nothing to be scared of – she realised that there was a treacherous hallway between her and safety and that Mr. Wolf might be able to lunge across the kitchen and grab her before she could move. She also realised that she had no idea what might happen after that. Two words popped into her head, unbidden, and neither one was good. Seeing him next to a cooker, a battered cooker stained with who knew what that had splashed in dark, greasy gobbets over the gas rings and then slumped and dripped in burned spatters down the front and over the oven door, she began to wonder not if but how she would be consumed.
Sophie looked at Mr. Wolf. He was looking at her, but not her face. His attention was fixed on her hip, his eyes wandering over her thigh and up to her waist. She shifted position so that the kitchen table obscured her from the waist down and leaned forward, propping her chin on both clenched fists. Part of her wanted to glare defiance at Mr. Wolf and dare him to make a move, but the rest of her decided that this was a stupid, stupid idea. He shifted in his armchair. Would this be it? Would he strike, uncoiling like a cobra?
He coughed. It was a dry sound.
“Do you drink tea?” he asked. Sophie sat back, startled.
“Sometimes” she admitted.
“Do you know how to make tea?” he asked. Sophie shook her head. She wasn’t going to get up and turn her back. Mr. Wolf sighed.
“No,” said Mr. Wolf sadly “I supposed it’s all frothy coffee and…whatchamacallet…alsopops”
“Alcopops” Sophie corrected. “It isn’t. Why do you want me to make tea?”
Mr Wolf grinned. It was a genuine, amused grin with just a tinge of malice at the corners.
“I thought we should be civilised. After all, you’re going to rob me. At knifepoint, I shouldn’t wonder. I don’t know whether to be upset that a young person like you should be carrying a knife or glad that you are. Given what you hear about on the radio it’s probably a good idea.”
“I wasn’t going to rob you!” said Sophie, irked at the very idea of him coming to that conclusion so quickly and accurately. And it wasn’t robbing, really. Robbing was when you took the TV and the games console and the tablet and stuff. She’d been intending to pick something small up, just to show that she’d been inside.
Someone knocked at the door.
“I’ll get that,” said Mr. Wolf, struggling to his feet. He made his way to the kitchen door, paused, said “there’s a small china cream jug in the shape of a cow over on the sideboard. I’ve never much liked it, so if you could steal that I’d be obliged. While I’m busy, put the kettle on. I’m gasping.”
And then he was off down the hall.
Sophie found the kettle. Against her expectations, it was an electric kettle and was even plugged into a socket in the wall. She’d been half expecting a task involving drawing water from a well and maybe building a fire in order to make tea, and part of her was just a tiny bit disappointed that she wouldn’t have to. It was a very freaky piece of her, she reminded it sternly, and not at all cool or interesting, which was what the rest of her was. Kettle full of water and plugged in, she peered around the kitchen door. Mr. Wolf was talking to another man.
The other man was tall, broad, muscular. He had a big belt of tools, and one of those tools was an axe.
“I dunno about all that, mate, I tole you what my guv’nor tole me. Ee says I gotta clear branches off a tree in your back garden on account it’s council land.”
“But it’s not council, lad, I’ve got the freehold. It’s next door that’s council. Rent to own in the eighties, I did.”
“Look, pop, can’t you just let me in the back? Alls I’m doin’ is gardenin and if it ain’t your tree then I’ll sort your hedge out a bit and ‘ave a look about, alright?”
“I do the back myself, regular, so it doesn’t need doing. You go back and tell your guv’nor that you’ve got the wrong house.”
The man looked past Mr. Wolf and caught sight of Sophie.
“Tha’chor grandkiddie then, pop? ‘Allo darlin. Can you jus’ let me inna back yard for ten minutes?”
Sophie looked at the man again. Her larcenous instincts might have been in a developmental state but there was something about the way the man was insisting that made Sophie doubt him. She’d seen council workers before. Generally they had safety gear like gloves and pads and hard hats, which was all about health and safety, and they all had the same sorts of work clothes. The men that looked after the parks and mowed the green spaces all wore green with high visibility waistcoat type things and they all had badges with their photograph on. They all had ID. This man, though, was wearing jeans and heavy boots with a red and black checked flannel shirt over a faded grey t-shirt. She couldn’t see his ID. And there was something else. He wasn’t looking at her to see if she was going to say yes, his eyes were everywhere else. He’d looked at the piles of paper and the books. He’d noticed the cupboard under the stairs and the staircase itself. He was looking at how to move through the house, just like she had, so he’d know how to get in and out. Sophie stepped forward into the hall.
“Hiya,” she said “sorry, Granddad’s a bit easily confused. I do the back garden for him. Do you want to come in and have some tea while I call the Council to sort all this out?”
The man shook his head.
“Sorrite darlin’” he said “I ‘ad a cuppa not ten minutes ago. Look, luv, if you could jus’…”
“It’s no trouble” insisted Sophie, walking up to the front door with her phone already in her hand “just let me see your ID so I know who to ask about…” and she held out a hand while she pretended to dial a number on the phone. The man made a show of checking his pockets and then shrugged.
“Musta lef’ it inna van” he said with a forced smile. Sophie nodded.
“Pop back and get it, there’s a love” she said and had to suppress a smile because it was the sort of thing her mother would say. “So I can sort this and we can get back to recycling. That’s right, isn’t it grandad? Doing the recycling?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Wolf as if the matter had slipped his mind “get rid of all the paper. I said to have a bonfire but no, not how it’s done these days…”
The man stepped back and almost disguised the annoyance on his face.
“I’ll come back annuver time” he said, watching Sophie’s phone with suspicion. “I’ll sort this wiv me guv’nor, don’t you go to any trouble”
“No trouble” said Sophie, raising the phone to her ear “We talk to the council all the time about Granddad, me and Mum do. Someone’s always here for something or other.”
But the man had gone. Past the hedge there was the slam of a car door and then a glimpse of a white van moving away. Sophie allowed herself a fierce smile. That had been fun. Then she jumped, because Mr. Wolf had put a hand on her shoulder.
“Kettle’s boiled” he said “Fancy a cup?”
Sophie decided that she did.
“You know he was looking around for valuables?” asked Sophie between sips from the too hot and too sweet tea. Mr. Wolf insisted on using a teapot and making a bit of a fuss about the tea, so he’d ended up making it himself.
“Oh?” said Mr. Wolf, with a look that reminded Sophie he wasn’t born yesterday.
“That’s why he wanted to see the garden. You might have tools in your shed or an easy way in.”
“You know a lot about crime for a young lady” observed Mr. Wolf.
“I watch a lot of TV” said Sophie and Mr. Wolf nodded. “Do you think he’ll come back?”
“I don’t expect so” said Mr. Wolf “he thinks I’ve got a house full of rubbish and fussy relatives. I expect he heard about the biscuit tins and thought he’d have a look around.”
Sophie masked her expression very carefully.
“Lot of nonsense, I expect” she said taking another sip of tea.
“Ooh yes” said Mr. Wolf “you’d be daft to keep your mysterious fortune lying about the place in biscuit tins. People would be bound to look in biscuit tins, even if all they were after was a biscuit.”
This seemed sensible to Sophie.
“What will you do if he comes back?”
Mr. Wolf considered this carefully as he blew on his tea and took a long, satisfying swallow. Then he grinned at Sophie.
“Well,” he said “I expect I should have to eat him.” He saw the expression on Sophie’s face and chuckled, so she frowned.
“Not funny” she said.
Outside in the front garden the gnome and the bush watched as the setting sun washed the sky in oranges and pinks.
“I didn’t expect that” said the gnome.
“Me either” said the bush.
“Has it ever happened before?”
“What, the girl and the wolf team up to fight crime? I shouldn’t think so. What do you think will happen next?”
“I imagine,” said the gnome “they’ll finish their tea.”
“That’s a very prosaic end to a story” said the bush.
“Who says it’s ended?” asked the gnome and they went back to watching the sun set.