Unseen People 8 – Birth of the Songbird
Standing in the Way of Control – Gossip / Roadrunner – Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers / Life on Mars – David Bowie / Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen / She’s a Rainbow – The Rolling Stones / Firestarter – The Prodigy / Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles / Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones / Legal Man – Belle and Sebastian
Music is Magic
Six months Later
The bassline started
/Your back's against the wall/
Jack locked her flat door behind her and started her warm up. She’d been jogging from her flat in Shoreditch to her work in the City every morning. She found it cleared her head.
She picked up the pace as she turned off Totter’s Lane onto the high street.
/You're forgetting who you are/
She pushed a stray hair out of her eyes. Despite being early the June sun felt warm against her skin. It felt like bliss.
/It's part not giving in
And part trusting your friends/
As she passed the newsagents the elderly owner smiled at her. He was putting out bundles of papers fresh from the press.
She ran this route most mornings. Shoreditch is only a few miles from The City. The streets were full of the left overs of the night before. The morning sunlight redeeming even the lowest of cans.
At the traffic lights she had to stop and let a car by. Only then did she feel the pain in her legs. She knew she had to keep going. A new track came on and Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers started to sing.
Jack was passing Coal Hill School when she became aware of the car. She heard it first, the tires screeching on the tarmac. When she did see it, it was weaving side to side. The driver was either very drunk or just didn’t give a fuck.
There was a group of about five kids near the entrance of school. All in their early teens.
Going faster miles an hour/
Something took over. Without thinking Jack speeded up.
/I'm in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it's cold outside/
It was too late, the car was too close to the teenagers. She’d never get there in time. She could hear the cries from the kids. There was an anguished yell. It took her a moment to realise it was coming from herself.
She was moving faster than she had ever moved before. Without thinking she was in front of the school kids, holding her arms out wide. For a second she was elated, she’d made it. She could save them. But that was replaced by dread, what could she do to stop a speeding car? Why did she think she could help?
The car got closer and closer. She could see the driver. A young man, his face distorted by sunlight reflecting off the windscreen,
Then. Nothing. Her iphone changed track changed again.
/It's a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair/
Jack felt heat building up inside her
/But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream/
A bright light seemed to be surrounding her. Did the driver have his headlights on?
/Oh man, look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show/
The song began to build. Light was everywhere. It wasn’t just everywhere, it was in her. Apart of her. It held every atom of her body together.
Everything moved so slowly. Her body felt the impact of the car as it hit her. She felt as if she were a detached soul, observing. Every bone in her body shattered, every organ shredded. The car cut through her like a knife through butter. The light was in her head. It was everything. It blocked out the pain. It was leaving her. Everything that made up her body was leaving her.
/Is there life on Mars?/
Everything turned to black
Jack opened her eyes. She couldn’t hear a thing. She saw the car, it had turned over onto its side. She could see people running towards her.
Sound started to come back.
There were kids shouting. One slapped her on the back, the force and the surprise nearly making her wobble over, “That was frigging amazing!” His voice seemed distant, like an echo. It reminded her of the way voices reverberated and get lost in a busy swimming pool.
“How did you do it?” A girl, about thirteen came towards her. Jack could only stare, not quite sure what she meant. Did? What did she do?
“Are you OK?” asked a man in a tie. A teacher she guessed.
“Uh-huh,” She looked at him hoping he had the answers. By the expression on his face he did not. “What happened?” Her own voice sounded strange. As if an actor was speaking the words for her.
“That car was going to kill them, then you…” The teacher stared at the overturned car, “You… turned it over.”
More people were coming around them, school kids chattering loudly.
“You, well there was a bright light. Like a flash.”
“That was soooo awesome!”
The kids were crowding around her. She felt trapped, claustrophobic.
In the distance she could hear a siren. Then two sirens. They were drawing closer.
“I, I, I’ve got to go,” She pushed past the teacher. Through the throng of school kids. She was vaguely aware of people trying to get her to stay. Then she heard the song.
/H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap/
Her legs worked automatically, slowly she picked up pace.
/`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run/
And then she was running.
The company provided showers and changing rooms for the top staff. Many of the traders built up aggression that they need to work off over lunch, or before they went home to their families.
As the PA to the director Jack had access to the showers. At that time of the morning she had the women’s changing rooms all to herself. She just stood there letting the waterfall fall over her. She imagined she was standing under some waterfall in someplace tropical.
She slowly looked over her body for any signs of damage. There were none. In fact her skin all but glowed. She put her head under the water again. Its warmth reviving her a little.
She wanted to run when she spotted Ashley waiting for her, but the tightness of her dress and height of her heels wouldn’t allow it. The company didn’t have a dress code for the female employees, that would open them up to law suits. But it didn’t take Jack long to understand what was expected.
“Only by five minutes.”
“Still,” the older woman shook her head, “it’s going to be a long day!”
Jack kept quiet, she knew it was true. She listened patiently as Ashley explained the day ahead. When the board members were arriving, food was ordered. Who it was she had to pay attention to. She didn’t go into what would happen later, that remained unsaid.
There was a team of PAs all working to get the space set up. The hand outs and other supporting material had all been printed out the night before. Still, chairs needed placing, projectors tested.
“Don’t worry about the old bat,” Felicity, the PA to the vice-president of marketing whispered to her, “she’s always cranky when the board are in.”
Jack looked over at Ashley, she doubted she was much more than thirty. Thirty five at tops.
“She’s not all that bad.”
“Not all the time, no.” Felicity sighed, “Just when the board are in.”
It was 9:30 when they finished setting up the meeting room. Ashley sent them down to meet their guests. The reception area had been set up with breakfast food, coffee, tea etc. Jack looked longingly at the food. With no one there yet she hungrily grabbed half a slice of unbuttered toast. She didn’t dare risk anything that might spill on her dress. There would be no time to change.
As the board members arrived she kept at the back. Each were accompanied by more beautiful people. Mostly young women with the odd young man as well. Jack glanced down at the card Ashley had given her, the name read; Wilfred Glendon. She glanced over and saw Felicity talking to a large rotund man in a suit that seemed to have been tailor made to fit a circus tent. Poor little Felicity looked like a moon orbiting a gas giant.
“Mr Glendon!” She had spotted him. He was lean and wiry, with a hint of muscle and power underneath his Saville row suit. In stark contrast to his otherwise impeccable appearance his hair was wild and unkempt.
“Please,” he held out a hand, “Call me Wilf.”
“Certainly Wilf, welcome back.” She smiled brightly. Glancing back at Felicity trying to get a word in edgeways with her man-mountain she figured things could have been worse.
In the distance she could hear the sound of a piano. How odd, she thought, Mr Pan normally didn’t approve of music in the office. He didn’t want his team distracted.
Jack led Wilf up to the top floor. The outer walls were all windows.
“No matter how many times I come back the view always takes my breath away.”
“Doesn’t it just, Mr Pan says the English weather is never less than dramatic and we have the best seats in house.”
“Peter certainly has a way with words.”
Jack turned and looked at Wilf, he stayed looking out of the window. The only other person she had known to call Mr Pan ‘Peter’ was Ashley. She realised she had been staring for too long when he turned and caught her looking. He grinned and she felt herself going red. Despite the lines around his eyes, and the grey speckled hair his face looked young.
/ She comes in colours ev'rywhere/
She smiled and turned away, “The other will be here soon. Shall we find your seat?”
/ She combs her hair/
“You can lead me anywhere my dear”
/She's like a rainbow/
There was no hiding it. Jack was blushing from head to toe.
The day was a long and hard one. The meeting room was closed to the PAs while the talks were on. They worked in the adjacent rooms preparing the next presentation. At the end of each session Ashley would lead the board members through to the reception for more refreshments.
During the final change over the board had left the projector on. It showed an image of a dense forest full of strange looking trees. For some reason Jack couldn’t help but stare.
“Come on!” Felicity nudged her, “We get a rest after this one!”
“What do you think it is about?” Jack gestured at the screen.
“I don’t know, a metaphor for growing your stock profile probably.” Felicity groaned, “Look at this J. They just chuck their left over food and wrappers on the floor. It’s like kids.”
Half way through each lecturer two of the PAs had come in with baskets full of chocolates and sweats. It had been Jack and Felicity’s turn last.
The final session started at 7:00pm. All the PAs sat slouched in chairs. None of them had the energy to talk. Jack took her shoes off feeling an enormous sense of relief. She pulled her legs underneath her and dreamed of a long hot bath.
They all turned and looked as the door to the meeting room opened. Ashley closed it quietly behind he.
“OK team, they are nearly done.”
Jack glanced down at her watch, it was past 8, how had it got there so quickly.
“You each know what you are doing next.”
They nodded silently. Looking from face to face Jack could tell she wasn’t the only one suppressing the urge to sigh.
The night air was warm as Jack and Felicity led their respective board members out to the waiting cars. She probably didn’t need her little red jacket. The limousines were black, elegant and ever so slightly menacing. The men waiting beside them looked like they had served in war zones. On whose side she didn’t speculate. She doubted there were many politicians who enjoyed this level of security.
Getting in the car wasn’t easy in her long, tight skirt and heels. The leather seats were so comfortable she had to fight the urge to fall asleep right there. Felicity was already making the men drinks.
“Do you want one as well?” Felicity smiled, but Jack could see the tiredness in her eyes.
She feared a drink would send her to sleep, “OK, just a little one.”
Wilf reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, “How about we pick things up with a little marching powder?”
Jack looked at the envelope suspiciously but Felicity was already making a temporary table to with the back of a file on Jack’s lap. She sat uneasily as the two men hoovered up generous lines from her lap.
The neon lights of the restaurant burned brightly as the driver helped her out of the car. How long it would last she didn’t know. She was burning up her already depleted reserves of adrenaline.
“Let me help you,”
Wilf was grinning at her. Was it the drugs she thought, or did he have more teeth than before? “Let me help you,” he said, offering her his arm.
It felt strange to be walking in on his arm, but she saw Ashley nodding approvingly.
The restaurant was noisy and full. It had been opened just before the last war by a Jewish family fleeing the continent. In the 50s it had established itself as a hang out for artists, writers, actors and other Soho bums. In more recent times its third generation of owners had cashed in on its notoriety to draw in the big money.
Wilf pointed to a black and white photo of Francis Bacon sitting in the bar area, “It’s been a long time since any artist has been able to afford this place. At least not one of the good ones.”
Jack laughed, she could feel the drugs in her blood. She could remember an advert for a premium petrol from when she was little. It showed a golden liquid coursing through an engine. She imagined the cocaine in the same way. Spreading through her body, making it tingle.
The group had a private room all to themselves. The wood panel walls were covered in posters for West End plays long since closed.
“Look at the way they stare at the waitresses,” Felicity whispered to her. Jack looked around, it was true. She wasn’t sure which got the hungrier looks from the men. The food or the young women.
To her left Wilf had ordered a steak, extrarare. Jack herself had ordered a Caesar salad, light dressing, no parmesan. The waitresses kept topping up her glass when she wasn’t looking so she had no idea how much she'd drunk.
Once the food was over the crowed started to thin. She hadn’t noticed Mr Pan and Ashley leaving, but they were no longer around.
“Shall we go on for a nightcap? I know a bar.” Wilf placed a hand possessively on the small of her back, leading her out before she had time to protest.
It was just Wilf, Jack, Felicity and Felicity’s board member now.
“Are you OK sweetie?” Felicity whispered, “You seem a bit out of it.”
“Hmmm?” Now she mentioned it Jacks head was spinning a little. The streetlights around them burned brightly like lost constellations of stars. Wilf’s hand pulled her onwards.
/I'm the trouble starter, punkin' instigator/
The bar was part of a private member’s club. The building was new but the bar fitting looked vintage, probably saved from a pub pulled down in the East End. Wilf ordered them all double brandies.
“Where is that music coming from? It doesn’t sound like the sort of music you’d hear in a place like this.”
/I'm the fear addicted, danger illustrated/
“What music?” Felicity looked concerned. She pulled away as the fat man put a meaty hand on her thigh.
/You're a firestarter, twisted firestarter/
“She’s manifesting,” The fat man was grinning, pointing at her hand. She looked down it was glowing.
“You are going to be quite an asset.” She looked into Wilf’s eyes. They were the eyes of a predator. She tried to push away but his arm was around her waist and he wasn’t letting go.
“Hey! Get off her!” Felicity grabbed Jack and pulled her away.
“Now don’t be like that…” In front of Jack’s eyes Wilf’s faces was changing, becoming more wolf like. No one else in the bar seemed to have noticed. In fact most were watching with only a mild interest. As if they were a bit of street theatre.
/I'm the bitch you hated, filth infatuated/
Jack pulled away, she patted Felicity on the arm. “I’m OK. I think I need to go splash some water on my face,” she looked back Wilf’s face seemed to have returned to normal.
She walked away, uneasy on her feet. Once she was out of the bar she started crying. What was wrong with her?
“Hey, are you OK?”
Jack looked up. It was a woman with an American accent. She reminded Jack a little of that actress, Zooey Deschanel.
“I think my drink was spiked…” Jack started crying again. She felt an arm go around her shoulders.
“Hey, hold on in there kido. My name's Jess, can you walk?”
“Uh-huh,” Jack sobbed, “Just.”
“I’m going to get you to a taxi. Do you need to get to a hospital?”
Jack shook her head, she didn’t think so.
“OK, good news.” Jess put an arm aroundJack.
“Jack, oh my god, are you alright?” through her blurred vision Jack saw Felicity.
“I think we need to get her home. Do you know where she lives?”
“Good, let's get out of here.”
“Not so fast,” The three women turned to see Wilf standing behind them.
“Get back douchebag!” Jess stood up and put herself between the two younger girls and the man.
“Don’t make me laugh!” Wilf gave out a sharp yell, half laugh, half bark.
Jack felt anger grow in her. She didn’t want this woman to get hurt. All she had done was try and look after her.
“Get. The fuck. Back.” Her head suddenly felt clear. Perhaps it was the adrenaline. The music started again.
/Picture yourself in a boat on a river/
Jack felt the tune fill her body. Light seemed to be escaping through her skin.
/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies/
She saw Wilf backing away. There was a cry. It seemed to be coming from far away. She hoped it wasn’t one of the women.
/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/
It all seemed so obvious now, she could make him go away.
/A girl with kaleidoscope eyes/
Everything went multi-coloured.
“Miss,” A hand shook her awake.
“You can’t sleep here miss.”
As her eyes focused Jack could just about make out the outline of a policeman.
“One too many?”
“Urgh, where am I?”
“Shoreditch Miss, Totter’s Lane.”
Outside her own flat. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, but you can’t sleep there.” The policeman shone a light in Jack’s eyes.
“Is there a boyfriend I could call? Girlfriend maybe?”
“I…” Jack clutched her head like it was hurting, “I’m not sure. He’s important. They tried to make me forget.”
The policeman sighed, “Getting over a broken heart?” he offered her his hand, “Well we’ve all been there.”
He pulled her up. She wobbled and nearly feel over. One of her heels was broken.
“Can you remember where you live?”
Jack nodded and pointed to a door on the opposite side of the road. He helped her walk across the road.
“Do you need help up the stairs?”
She shook her head as she struggled with her keys. Eventually the door came open.
“Well take better care of yourself. No boy is worth risking your life over.”
Jack gave him peck on the cheek as a thank you.
Jack was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She vaguely remembered her phone ringing, looking, seeing it was Ashley and ignoring it. She no longer wanted anything to do with that place. In her dreams she saw her mother, only she looked younger. She was dressed like someone from a BBC period drama, collecting wood in a forest. Next she saw Isaac and Ben, they were breaking people out of Mr Bubbles' lair. they moved under cover of darkness, Jess and Mr Tiddles directing them.
Then she woke. At first she thought she was still dreaming. The room was dark, with only a little light coming in through the window. Everything was still and unnaturally quite for London. There were no cars, no rats scuffling under the floorboards. Only silence.
Then it was broken.
/Please allow me to introduce myself/
A face moved forward into the light, it was Peter Pan.
/I am a man of wealth and taste/
Jack tried to speak but her voice was gone again.
"Well if you wont be any use to me then there's no reason for you to speak," his words dripped with malice. gone were the playfulness from his face. "Of course you could change all that..."
Jack clutched her throat, she tried to cry out but no sound slipped passed her lips.
"The other satellites, my brothers, are stupid Jack. All they want to do is count and qualify humanity. But I'm different. The first humans they met where gatherers and foragers."
Jack put her hand onto her bed side table, grasping desperately for a weapon. Peter's hungry eyes fell watched her eagerly. Like a cat watching a mouse. Both still, both waiting for the other one to run.
"I met someone different, I met a hunter. The shape of his mind," Peter leaned back like a man reminiscing about his for taste of cognac, "He understood about prey. About how to use people."
Jack grasped something. It felt smooth and cool in her hand. It was her iPhone. She picked it up, hoping to text for help. Then a thought occurred to her. She pressed play.
/L-O-V-E love, it's coming back, it's coming back/
The music was coming through her.
/Refer to our discussions, confirm the terms of our love affair
I exercise all options, and I know I'll see you there/
Peter's face looked panicked. He couldn't control what he was saying.
/You're the Legal Man, you've got to prove that you're no liar/
Light was building in her again.
/I'll render all services you may reasonably require/
Peter was stuck to the spot unable to move. His eyes were wild with fear.
/Get out of the city and into the sunshine
Get out of the office and into the springtime/
the light built and built...
/Get out of the city and into the sunshine
Get out of the office and into the springtime/
It filled her completely...
/Get out of the city and into the sunshine
Get out of the office and into the springtime/
She no longer knew where the light stopped and she began...
/Get out of the city and into the sunshine
Get out of the office and into the springtime/
The last thing she saw was Peter's face contorted in fear. Everything went white.
Jack could feel the sunlight on her eyelids. At first she dared not open them. What would she find, who would be waiting for her?
There was a warm breeze coming in through the window. She counted backwards from five. 5, 4, 3, nerves built, 2... 1. She was alone, no trace of Peter. She looked to her right, at the bedside table. There was her iPhone. She picked it up. It was open on iTunes, last track played was Legal Man by Belle and Sebastian.
Jack tried to speak, but no noise came out. She put her head in her hands realising she was mute again.
She wanted to believe it had all been a dream, but she knew it hadn't. What should she do now? She could only think of one thing, she had to find Isaac, Ben and her mother, check that they were OK.
Pushing herself out of bed every limb ached. So what did she know? That a man calling himself Peter Pan, who was possibly a satellite from some ancient spacecraft, was kidnapping women who had special powers, possibly because they had previously been turned into trees by the same spacecraft. none of it made much sense. It was like some crazy science fiction.
She went to the wardrobe. Pushing past the expensive dresses she'd worn for work she found the item she had been looking for. The old pair of dungarees, the ones that had followed her here from the nineties. She picked them and a women's green, long-sleeved T-shirt. Not much of a superhero costume she would have admitted, but it felt right.
There was little she took with her. She collected the few bits of clothing that didn't remind her of work, her phone and books. It all fitted easily in her wheelie suitcase. All her old life numbers, Isaac, her mum, had been deleted from her phone. She'd just have to go home and hope they were easy to find. Would they be angry at her for having been away for so long? She made herself worry with visions of finding Isaac with another woman.
Euston station was hot and sweaty. Her small form was jostled and squashed in the crowd. A single train ticket to Manchester was ruinously expensive, but it didn't matter. She had to get home. To the shadow of those hills where things made sense.
It was after the morning rush, but before lunch when she finally made it onto the train. She nodded and smiled at a few of the passengers, glad that none of them tried to talk to her, or expected her to talk. The train was mostly quiet and she easily found a seat with a table to herself.
As the train pulled away she carefully put her earphones in. She was worried she might derail the train. As Kate Bush began singing she could feel her body filling with power. But this was a gentle power, flowing through her like a phone recharging. Not like the bomb she feared she was.
She was so memorised by the passing fields and the music that she didn't notice the woman coming to sit down in front of her. When she looked up she got a shock. Ashley smiled at her and mimicked taking her earphones out.
"Well, you gave Peter quiet the shock."
Jack just looked at her. She had liked Ashley, she didn't want to think she was working with Peter.
"I know it all seems odd. You have to understand Peter's not bad,"
Jack crossed her arms.
"Well, he's no worse than many. And he can make you powerful! When I first came here, got free of the trees I mean. I was so alone. Then this man found me and I," she looked out of the window, "I became his."
She looked at Jack for a long time. Then she realised something and passed Jack a notepad and pen from her bag.
Jack wrote; 'Don't you belong to Peter now?"
"It isn't like that. I work for Peter, but he teaches us how to use our powers. That's right, there are more like us."
'Felicity, the others?'
"Yes, all came out of the trees. All have different powers."
"I don't age. Or at least I age very slowly."
'How old are you?'
"That's a difficult question,"
'How?" Jack wrote quickly, filling up the page in the notepad.
"I was born eighteen years ago, but when I escaped the tree I ended up in 1875. I have been ageing slowly ever since."
'Why do you work for Peter knowing who he is?'
"He finds the most exceptional women and makes us powerful. He could make you powerful."
Jack took some time composing her reply. "He makes you powerful so you can do what he says. When the board are here you are still on the outside, only let in to serve them."
It was Ashley's turn to cross her arms. "I don't think it is quite like that. I have a lot of responsibility."
'But what is it you want. What will he give you?'
"I-I-I want to go home..."
'Home is Rochdale, Hernsbridge?"
Ashley just nodded. a group of teenage boys pushed past, talking loudly about the coming weekend's football. They sat quietly watching each other until they had passed.
'We are going home then. Come with me.'
"It's not as easy as all that. Everything has changed. She paused, "or more to the point, they haven't changed. I have. Don't you think I haven't thought about it? Ever since the date of my mum's birth passed..."
Jack reached out and took her hand. She pointed at the place on the notepad where she'd written 'come with me.'
"No," Ashley said firmly, "I can't. Peter, he... I owe him,"
'You mean he owns you,'
"Look Jack," Ashley took her hand away, "You haven't seen the things I have. If you want to leave, that's fine. I won’t tell him we spoke. But if we cross paths again that'd make you an enemy of Peter's and an enemy of mine."
'Sorry, but I won’t fight you.'
Ashley sighed, for the first time she looked like someone who could have lived more than 140 years. "I'm afraid you won’t have a choice." She got up and left.
Jannet hated the Nutters. William and Isobel were intolerable. Ever since she’d returned to the village they’d refused to let her forget what she’d done to their family. She had to remember what Old Demdike had told her. Stay silent, watch and learn. Your time will come.
So she waited, year after year. Keeping to herself in the house. She’d collect wood in the forest and tend the animals. She had little, but she had enough. Mostly she practised the lessons Demdike had taught her.
When she had surplus, which was rare, she’d wander into Wheatley Lane. Knocking door to door hoping to sell.
It was late summer when she saw him. She’d been going door to door selling. It hadn’t been a profitable day. She had found a spot in the shade down the side of the Butterworth’s cottage. If you didn’t mind the mud you could squat down and rest for a while with no one to bother you. It was while she was hidden in the shade that she noticed the young man.
It took her a while to recognise Peter Robinson. She remembered him from her childhood, he’d been a spotty kid who she hadn’t paid much attention to. By the time she had come back from the school, he’d left to join the army, fighting in Ireland or the continent. Now he was back. His shoulders had broadened. The muscles in his arms were evident as he loaded his cart. She couldn’t take her eyes off him as he moved. None of the boys in the village had ever had this effect on her. She always saw them as half animals, dangerous if not fed, or if they had consumed too much beer, but most other times harmless.
Peter had moved away from her view. She shifted around the side of the wall so she could see him better. There was a young boy, probably his brother Edmund sitting watching and talking. She couldn't hear the words but she could hear the tone of his voice. It sounded so different from the others. Clearly he’d been around people from faraway places like London or Scotland. She watched the movement of his body. How did he live in it? It must drive him mad to be so beautiful.
Over the next few days she’d find herself going out of her way to see him. She found an old tree at the top of a small hill that gave her a view of the road in and out of Wheatley Lane. She’d sit there hidden from passers by waiting for him to come past on his way to the fields. She hated the others even more for not being him. Isobel and William, who thought themselves so special, were like dogs compared to her man. Sometimes she lay awake in her bed thinking up ways they could meet. She felt like her love was so strong it could bend time.
She was outside her home chopping wood when they came. William with his face covered in pock marks from where he scratched his skin during the pox as a child. Isobel holding her head high as if she were the lady of a manor.
“What can I help you with?” She took a huge swing at a particularly large log. As her axe fell she imagined it was William’s head.
The real William looked at his wife nervously, urging her on.
“There something going on. Strange noises in the woods behind the village. Spirits at large.”
Jannet put her axe to one side. “What have you heard?”
“Strange noises, like voices only distant and present at the same time.”
“Distant and present at the same time, that does sound strange. Owt else?”
The couple looked at each other, “There are lights.”
“Lights? Like torches or like the stars?”
“Neither. Well like the sun only smaller. It doesn’t flicker like fire.” William’s jowls wobbled as he spoke. Jannet imagined trimming off the fat.
“Where have you seen these lights?” She scratched the end of her nose enjoying seeing such an ‘up standing’ couple squirming.
“At the edge of the woods, near Wheatley Lane,” Elizabeth explained, “So will you help us?”
Jannet considered saying no. That they had refused her food and shelter when she had been in need. But that wasn’t how it worked. You had to help those who came asking for it. There would be a price afterwards, but you helped first.
Perhaps she would see Peter there?
She surveyed the clearing and the edge of the trees. The strange lights were most likely thieves. Cattle or sheep rustlers. Jannet thought it unlikely it’d be highwaymen out this way. The nearest routes were all too poor to make a living from. Still the people were worried and she knew it was her job to go looking.
She picked a spot in the forest where she knew she wouldn’t be seen, but that gave her a good view of where the Rochdale and Oldham roads met. She hunkered down and waited.
Old Demdike had taught her how to be still. They had sat on the banks of a pond and waited. Counting the breaths she took. Slowly over time her body would become part of its surroundings. The air and the ground speaking to her in their own language. The animals scurrying over her. She could, with time and patience see what they had seen.
Images came into her head. Bright and unwavering like the sun, but smaller and closer. A strange woman in a bright yellow cloak, or coat. A man who knew how to heal. To the creatures of the forest and the hill they smelt wrong. Something in the air around them. They kept away, which annoyed Jannet as it meant she couldn’t see the strangers better. The woman held a magic object in her hands. Of that she was sure. A book of light, as bright as her sun torch.
Jannet opened her eyes. The dark was setting in, she needed to return to her home. She could feel it now, in the air. Something was off. The air, the forest, the hill, they all felt wrong. Like a metallic taste in her mouth.
Returning home she collected wood from behind the house. Placing it in the garden she started a fire. Over the next hour she poked and fed the fire until it was bright enough to be seen deep inside the forest. Those fool playwrights in London thought a magical fire needed strange ingredients, magical words. Old Demdike had taught her that all you needed was good, dry wood.
Staring into the fire she could see them now. The cat with the long teeth, the fierce bear, the wolves that howled at the moon. As well as them was the hare, jumping through the fire, making it reborn and burn brighter. Old Demdike had said all hares were female. Jannet had cut enough open, and paid attention, so she knew that wasn’t true.
As the hare leapt the flames grew higher the smoke reached above the treetops. Jannet knew the strange woman could smell the flames now. She went inside her house. In the larder there was some bacon and carrots. She took out a cooking pot and started making soup.
The smell of the bonfire and the cooking mixed in the air, drifting across the clearing and into the depths of the trees. She could feel the animals waiting. Normally the smells from her cooking would bring them close, but not now. They knew the strangers were close and they watched from a distance.
The footstep fell softly, but as soon as it crossed the border onto her homestead she knew. Jennet went out to the step and watched.
“Mrs Reece, Jenny is that you?” Her voice was from nearby. It came from Lancashire, of the North and the Hills.
“Aye, that will be me,” Jannet knew it was true. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Wren, this is Tom. Don’t you remember us?”
“Not yet,” she got up, “You’ll be here for Jack.” A spot of rain fell on her face.
Wren followed the younger Jenny into the house. She exchanged a look with Tom, he just shrugged. There was no point worrying now. “We saw the light from your fire from the top of Beetham Tower.”
The younger Jenny looked back at her. Wren was taken back by her face. The lines were gone, the hair thicker, more full of colour. Her eyes were just as bright as ever.
“What is Beetham Tower?”
“It’s in Manchester.”
“The market? There’s not been a fort that way on a long time.”
No, supposed Wren, there hasn’t. The young Jenny motioned for them to sit at an old wood table.
As Jenny dished soup out into bowls Wren looked around. There were rabbits and pheasants hanging from iron hooks in the ceiling. The walls had been white washed once but the plaster was crumbling now. An ambitious estate agent might describe it as a fixer-upper. They’d be lying.
“You mentioned Jack, is she hear?”
Jenny put two bowls and two hunks of bread down in front of them. “She’ll have smelt the fire,” Wren could see it burning outside as wind and rain beat against the window, “We only have to wait.”
Wren tore off a lump of bread and dipped it into the soup. She hadn’t eaten anything warm in days and it tasted fantastic. Something struck her, “You said Jack could smell the fire.”
“Aye,” Jenny face was full of bread, soup dripping down her chin.
“Can anyone else smell it?” The wind howled like a hungry dog causing the door to rattle. Outside they could see the flames of the fire writhing about, like snakes dancing to a charmer’s tune.
“Where is this place?” Tom asked.
“The forest,” Jenny took another bite of her food.
“Which forest, there are more than one.”
Jenny looked at him funny, “The one by the hill. Your voice is strange, where are you from, the south?”
“I’ve lived in Lancashire for twenty years now,” Tom bristled.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. Your voice is from far away but your shoes have the soil of the hill and the forest on them.” Jenny went back to eating, clearly feeling the discussion was over.
Something changed. Maybe it was the clouds outside, but the room grew darker. Wren leapt up, “There’s someone out there, the other side of the fire.” She pointed and watched their heads turn.
“No, I don’t think so,” Wren couldn’t see more than a dark figure, maybe two? Both covered in shadow.
“If it’s spirits of the forest then they will need paying,” Jenny got up. Wren and Tom looked at each other. Paid in what?
They followed her outside. The rain whipped them as they drew closer to the fire. Amazingly it still burnt bright. Wren could see there were two figures now. She had to shield her eyes from the flames slightly. Only by squinting could she make them out. A large man in a pinstriped suit and a tall woman with raven black hair.
“My name is Peter Pan, this is my friend Ashley. We’re here to wait for Jack.”
Wren, Tom and Jenny looked at each other. What did they want?
Under the hill Ship and Control woke up.
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