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Authors: Joanne Owen

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BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
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I shook my head, silently begging her not to snap at me again. ‘Not yet. Sorry. We can check the other rooms. What's wrong? Why is it so important?'

She cupped her face in her hands, and I didn't know what to do or say. I swallowed hard and asked if she needed anything. My voice came out as a whisper. I wasn't used to things being this way round. I mean, she always made
me
feel better.

‘I'm sorry, Rosie. I just can't remember where I put it. It was a gift from my old friend, you see. From my Bear and the girls.' She shook her head. ‘It's my own fault. I should have taken better care of it. It's frustrating. Maddening. Not knowing where things are.' She folded the paper and put it in a cake tin. ‘Why don't you go and collect some eggs for us to paint? I promised Josephine we'd bring her some. I'll be all right. I'll join you in a bit. I'll just check the drawers again.'

It seemed like it might be a good idea to give her some space so I took a torch and went outside to the chicken pen, hoping she
would
be all right. I didn't want to see her cry again. The pen was at the side of the house, next to the cabin. Mum hated the chickens. She said Granny had decided to get them around the same time she started to forget things, but it seemed to me that they were good for her. They meant she wasn't on her own so much. I mean, I know they're only chickens, but they gave her something to look after. Granny once told me she kept them near her cabin in case she needed to borrow their legs and run away, because you never knew when you might need to make a quick escape. This had made me giggle, but now all I could think about was the people she'd left behind in Poland. What if some of her friends
had
survived? There had to be a way to find out, to know for sure.

I'd collected about a half a dozen eggs when Granny came out, holding the cake tin.

‘That's plenty. Let's go to the cabin. The paints are in there somewhere, and we can make all the mess we want, and then hunt for the eggs, like when you were little.'

The cabin was another thing I loved about coming here. I guess it had started out as a shed but had been transformed into what I imagined a cosy Alpine chalet was like. The windows had specially made shutters painted forest-green and mustardy yellow, and the inside walls were covered in tapestries of woods and animals. There was no electricity, but it had a real fireplace.

I found the paint and we decorated the eggs with bright swirls and flowers. Daisy and I used to do this every Easter, but doing it now without her, after all this time, made me realise how much things had changed now she was older. I missed her. We used to know everything about each other. We used to share secrets.

Once the eggs had dried, Granny told me to close my eyes while she hid them. I'd hardly had a chance to close them when I heard her banging around the room. She was rummaging through a cabinet, all frantic about the necklace again. I could see her breath in the air. I suggested we go back to the house. ‘I'll check every room,' I promised. ‘Let's go – it's freezing in here.'

She shook her head. ‘I'll light a fire. It's time for a fire. I can't wait any longer.'

She knelt in the hearth. There were two nests of Russian dolls there – four round-bellied sisters, laid out in a row. There should have been six, but the smallest of each set had been missing for as long as I can remember. Daisy and I used to play house with them, pretend to feed them tea and cake. Each doll had the words
For DR, for our girls
carved into its base. The ‘DR' were Granny's initials – for Dorothy Rose, the same name as mine. Daisy had been named after Dad's mum, and me after Granny, although I'd always been called Rosie. Granny sealed the dolls back inside each other and handed both sets to me, saying one was for me and one was for Daisy, and that we should keep them safe because they'd looked after her, and now they'd look after us, like Vasilisa's doll looked after her in the story.

‘What story?' I asked.

‘You don't remember it?' She sounded offended. I really didn't remember it, which made me feel guilty, but she'd told me so many.

‘What's it about?' I asked.

‘You should read it again for yourself,' she said. ‘It's one of the best. As I always say, all tales have truths, Rosie, but especially that one.'

With help from a pair of bellows, Granny got the fire going really quickly and we knelt in front of it, rubbing our hands and leaning in far too close to warm our cheeks. After a while, she patted my knee and said I should take some eggs to Josephine. Then she looked at me with these big, wide eyes.

‘I love you, my darling,' she said. ‘You'll be just fine, you know. And you really shouldn't be afraid of that audition,' she added. ‘It's wrong to let fear stop you doing what you need to do. That won't get you anywhere. Always stay strong. Always stay true to who you are, Greta. Always stay true to what you want.'

‘I'm Rosie.'

‘What?' She looked confused and lost, all twitchy and fidgeting with her fingers.

‘I'm Rosie. You called me Greta.'

‘I know who you are,' she snapped again. ‘Take these eggs.' She handed me three.

‘Isn't it too late?' I asked. ‘Can't it wait until the morning?'

‘It's not even seven yet. Off you go, and don't forget your dolls.'

‘I won't be long. I can leave the dolls here.'

I put the eggs in my pocket and left quickly, blinking back tears. I didn't want her to see she'd upset me, and I didn't want to upset her any further. I shouldn't have picked her up on saying the wrong name.

The air was sharp and made my eyes sting. It smelled like snow was coming, and the moon looked different now. It was a grubby lemon colour, with pinky-grey patches smudged across it. Everything felt smudged. I knew saying the wrong name didn't
have
to mean anything bad. It's easy to get people's names muddled up, isn't it? Mum often called me Daisy by mistake. But that wasn't all, that wasn't everything. I was also worried by the way she was being so snippy with me, and angry with herself.

I walked as far as the village green, and stopped. Josephine, Granny's oldest friend, lived just the other side of it, only another five minutes away, but I suddenly felt terrible about leaving Granny. I had to get back. I started to walk home, then picked up speed until I was actually running. Weirdly, the dolls were sitting just outside the cabin when I got there. Maybe she was annoyed I hadn't taken them with me. I picked them up and went to open the door. It was locked.

‘Granny? Are you still there?'

She didn't answer. I went to the window. The shutters were closed, and I could smell burning. There was smoke coming from under the cabin door.

‘Granny!' I screamed.

I threw down the dolls, pulled on the handle and kicked at the door, but nothing made any difference. It felt like it was bolted from the inside. I ran to the house and called 999 from Granny's landline and rushed back to the cabin. The chickens were flapping and screeching and I could hardly breathe for all the smoke. It wasn't long before the fire engine came, and then the whole village. I watched, everyone watched, as the firemen battered down the cabin door and stormed inside. I rushed after them, but Josephine dragged me back by my coat.

I was shaking like mad when I gathered up the dolls, and I saw that the moon was just a great big dirty smear in the sky. I couldn't get that lost look on her face out of my head.

Chapter Two

I don't know how long I'd been there, but sometime later Mum, Dad and Daisy came to Josephine's. Mum was in an awful state. She came at me like a crazy person and asked me over and over again if I was all right. When she eventually let go of me, she begged me to tell her how it had happened, what we were doing in the cabin.

How could it have happened, Rosie? How could it?
Why did you leave her
?

I couldn't say anything. I just sat there, listening to her words, but not really feeling anything. Dad tried to get Mum to have a lie-down but she wouldn't, she couldn't. Then Dad told me I shouldn't feel bad about leaving Granny alone, that it was an accident, and there was nothing anyone could have done. I knew he was saying that to make me feel better, but I also knew I could have done something, and I knew I shouldn't have left her there. We should have gone back to the house, or we should have both gone to Josephine's. I fetched my coat.

‘We painted these for you.' I gave Josephine the eggs, then I gave Daisy her set of dolls, and I started to cry. At some point Dad carried me up to bed, but I didn't sleep. I spent all night beating myself up for leaving her, but not just that. I also couldn't stop thinking about all that stuff she'd said about living in Poland, and how crazy she'd gone looking for the necklace. I guessed it was from the man she'd fallen in love with there. He had to be her ‘Bear'. Maybe she'd been missing him all this time and had never said. Maybe she'd kept it bottled up all these years, and then tidying up and remembering the necklace had brought it all out. I didn't know, and now I never would.

We stayed with Josephine while Dad sorted out the funeral. Those days passed in numbness. No one said very much, and most of what was said was about the ‘arrangements'. We were detached from what had happened, and each other, but at least Mum was calmer.

The night before the funeral, Mum and Dad said I didn't have to go, but I did. As much as I was scared of it, I had to be there. I was up and dressed far too early, but didn't want to go downstairs, because that meant it was starting to happen, and I didn't want to feel it happening, because that would make it true. I felt numb and jittery at the same time, suspended between everything. Nothing felt real. Nothing could exist until today was over. I went to the window. There was a thin, sparkly layer of frost covering the green. Almost snow. Whenever it snowed, Granny said it was Lady Snowstorm shaking her skirts from her house in the clouds. She would have loved how it looked right now. We would have made a snowman today. It would have been tiny, but we would have made one.

‘Can I come in, love?' It was Mum. ‘The cars will be here soon. You should come down, try to eat something.' She rubbed my arm, and I went down with her, but I couldn't eat. I sipped some tea and then Dad came to say the cars were waiting.

I was almost sick when I saw the coffin. There she was, only a metre from me, but so far away. I pictured her lying just the other side of the wood. I knew she was wearing that spotty dress, and I knew she had a penny in her pocket. Dad said she'd need a penny to pay the boatman for her passing. He said that was the thing to do. The box was so small. I'd never noticed she was so small. Seeing it made everything more real and less real at the same time. Seeing it was absurd. I mean, seeing that we end up in a little box was mad-crazy absurd.

Daisy and I held hands all the way to the church and all through the service, and I knew it was nearly over when I saw a blur of orange through the windows, which made me feel sick again, because I knew why the people wearing those fluorescent coats were there – they were the grave diggers. We went outside in the wind and stood over the frosty hole in the earth. And though it was cold, my head was hot and my hands were sweaty, and I started to think about all the other people here. All the dead people, and all the people around Granny's grave. All the lives people had lived, and all the lives people were still trying to live. And I imagined I could hear inside everyone's head, and see everything that made them the person they were, and I felt like I was floating and sinking, all at the same time. When the words had been said, when we were supposed to leave the orange-coat-men to tuck her in with the earth, I took one of the dolls from the set Granny had given me and dropped it into her grave so she'd have something to look after her. I kept the other doll safe in my pocket. Then we filed away, and I was shaking so much Daddy put his arm around me and practically carried me back to the car. I hated leaving her there, all alone in that box. We just left her there, like I'd left her alone in the cabin.

Everyone went back to Josephine's for tea. I didn't feel like eating, but Mum said I should have something, and handed me a tiny cherry pie. As I bit into it, I found myself smiling about one of Granny's stories. It was about a girl, a bear and a basket of pies.
Mashenka and the Beast Who Walked Like a Man
, I think it was called. I must have been about five or six when she first told me that story and managed to turn a day to remember for all the wrong reasons into a day to remember for a better reason. I'd been riding my bike up and down the lane when a bigger boy turned up and threw something at me. I remember braking hard as it hit the spokes, and then almost flying over the handlebars. Then I saw the thing slither away so fast I hardly had time to see it. But I did see it – a skinny grey snake – and I'd never been so scared.

I dumped the bike, ran to the nearest tree and scrambled up as quickly as I could, thinking there was no way a snake could climb a tree and get me there. The boy stood there, laughing at me, and the worse thing was, I couldn't hide my face or tell him to go away or anything. I couldn't move. I was frozen there, terrified of being up so high, terrified that making one tiny move would send me plummeting to the ground. After a while, Granny came looking for me. The boy ran off and she had to climb up the tree, prise my fingers off, one by one, and do a lot of talking to get me down.

When I was back on the ground and told her what had happened, she didn't tell me off for being silly and making her climb a tree, and she didn't tell me off for making things up because there weren't any snakes in this part of the world. She listened, and she believed that I believed the boy had thrown a snake at me. Then she took my hand and led me down to the room in her cellar and told me a story about a brave, clever girl called Mashenka, who was taken captive by a bear, the Beast Who Walked Like a Man. Mashenka begged him to let her take a basket of pies to feed her poor parents. Of course, the beast refused to let her go, but he agreed to take them himself, so Mashenka hid herself in the basket and the beast unwittingly brought her home.

I remember asking Granny if she thought I could be like Mashenka, and she told me I already was a brave girl, and that one little thing like what had just happened didn't mean anything. But I told her I wasn't really very brave because I could never play on the lane again in case that boy was there and did it again, or laughed at me for crying.

‘Of course you could,' she said, and told me I should never let what other people thought stop me from doing what I wanted. But, she added, if I ever felt scared again, we could come to our cave in the cellar and feel safe, because nothing could hurt us here, not even bigger boys or skinny snakes.

Now we were here, at Josephine's, I wanted to go to Granny's cellar right then, not hurting, and not feeling scared about how I'd manage without her. But I couldn't just leave, and I knew she wouldn't be there, so I just concentrated hard on what she'd said about being brave, and asked Daddy if he'd get everyone to do a toast to her. He gave me a hug and pinged a knife on a glass and said we should raise our glasses to Granny. I sipped some wine, then gulped down the rest of the glass and felt really dizzy. Mum must have noticed because she came over and fed me more pie and told me how much I reminded her of her mum. I couldn't bear it any longer, so I ran outside to be on my own, but a few minutes later I felt someone behind me. It was Mum. She squeezed me so hard it hurt.

‘At least she told you she loved you before it happened,' I said into Mum's hair. And then I remembered what she'd said to me too, before I left the cabin.
I love you, my darling. You'll be just fine, you know
. It was like she'd said goodbyes to us both.

BOOK: Circus of the Unseen
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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